A civil service for the intangible economy

The Bush Administration yesterday unveiled it new civil service regulations for the Department of Homeland Security, with plans to expand the system to the rest of the government. (See today’s Washington Post story “Civil Service on the Way Out At DHS” and the DHS Press release.) [Note: if you remember back, this was exactly what the major fight over the creation of DHS was all about: that the workforce provisions were a stalking horse for government-wide changes.]
The responses were predictable. The changes are touted as necessary to get rid of outmoded regulations and move the government into the 21st Century, and denounced as an attempt to eliminate worker protections.
I have not analyzed the new regulations in any depth. However, I remain skeptical whenever I read that one of the goals of the change is “expanding management rights.” For all the rhetoric about “our people are our most important asset,” workers are still most treated as an expense – a cost to be minimized. [Of course, except at the highest level of the corporations, where money is no object in recruiting talent. But that that is another issue: the myopia that “talent” is only at the top or in specialized positions].
Thus, when I hear people talk about the need for greater “flexibility” in the labor force, I have to ask, “flexibility for whom?” Are we talking about greater flexibility for management to rearrange labor resources? Or are we taking about flexibility that truly empowers workers by freeing them from unnecessary, outmoded and constricting rules and regulations? Some degree of former type of flexibility is necessary to adapt to changing economic conditions. But, that type of ultimate management flexibility can easily degenerate into arbitrariness.
Some years ago I did work on “high-performance work organizations” — organizational structures where front-line workers are empowered to make decisions and take action rather than simply act as drones following someone else’s orders. What is desperately needed is a set of workforce policies to implement this type of organizational structure where workers can utilize all their skills and knowledge. If workers are our greatest asset, why do we continue to waste that asset by not allowing them the flexibility to act?
When judging these new regulations, I believe we must pose this basic question: are these really 21st Century intangible economy regulations to empower employees and foster the best possible utilization and development of their skills and knowledge? Or are they 20th Century industrial age regulations simply to give management a freer hand to minimize the cost of labor as an input of production? Those are two very different sets of regulations – and we need to be able to tell them apart.

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