(Photo credit: Shutterstock)
In addition to trust in leaders, this study explored public servants’ perceptions of the rules of the civil service and entities that enforce them, which were designed to help the federal government operate effectively, efficiently and equitably—all factors that drive public trust in government. Notably, when asked about the civil service framework, interviewees, roundtable participants and survey respondents focused more on their trust in federal leaders to adhere to the rules than on the actual rules and enforcement processes.
|When federal employees trust the enforcement of the Merit System Principles and Prohibited Personnel Practices—the guardrails of their conduct—they know they are protected from political pressure, discrimination, arbitrary actions and retributions. These protections enable them to avoid the distractions of watching their back or second guessing the motivations of their leaders, colleagues and direct reports. “Trust in the institution helps those who go to work show up with confidence,” explained a current federal leader. A former civil servant agreed, noting that as a result, “A great deal goes right in government every day.”
Findings in Brief—Trust in the Civil Service Framework
- Civil servants have limited, generalized awareness of the civil service framework, which appears to be due to the opacity of civil service rules, processes and enforcement entities, as well as to insufficient efforts to educate federal employees about the civil service.
- Public servants’ level of familiarity with civil service rules and the entities that enforce them appears to mirror their trust in them—indicating that familiarity is a driver of trust.
- Trust in civil service rules and the entities that enforce them can be eroded by the lack of data about investigations of civil service violations and related enforcement actions; evidence or perceptions of civil service rules applied incorrectly or inefficiently; negative experiences with reporting a violation; and capacity limitations of the entities that safeguard the civil service.
The civil service framework is also a key factor in the accountability that bolsters public trust in government. Civil service rules and enforcement processes exist to help supervisors and managers address and resolve workplace problems—such as sexism, waste and conflicts of interest—by holding federal employees accountable. They are also designed to hold leaders accountable, helping to prevent nepotism, whistleblower retaliation, inefficiency and other behaviors that erode public trust in government. By instilling a sense of responsibility in staff and leaders, the civil service framework helps ensure federal employees fulfill their missions and serve as stewards of public trust.
Why the Civil Service Framework Matters
The rules and entities highlighted in this report maintain the guardrails of federal employment. They set the standards of public service, providing critical guidance to all civil servants, including career leaders. They also protect employees from discrimination, retaliation, favoritism and other threats to fair, ethical and effective federal workplaces. Finally, they are the mechanisms for holding civil servants accountable to each other, their leaders and the American public.
Specifically, Title 5 of U.S. Code is the legal framework for federal employment. It covers hiring practices, the General Schedule salary scale, and most of the other civil service rules and enforcement entities highlighted in this report—including the Merit System Principles; Merit Systems Protection Board; Prohibited Personnel Practices; Office of Government Ethics; Office of Special Counsel; and inspectors general.
The entities that safeguard the civil service addressed in this report—the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, inspectors general, the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Office of Government Ethics and the Office of Special Counsel—enforce civil service rules by investigating workplace challenges like inequitable pay, fraud and financial conflicts of interest; by holding violators of these rules accountable; and by providing redress to employees who report or experience them.
Familiarity with the Civil Service Framework
To understand federal employees’ trust in civil service rules and the entities that enforce them, it is first necessary to assess their knowledge about them.
For this reason, we asked survey respondents about their familiarity with the parts of the civil service framework that, according to initial research, are most prominent in federal employees’ work experience:
Together, these served as a proxy of the overall civil service framework for this study.
According to interviewees, roundtable participants and survey respondents, federal employees typically have limited, generalized awareness of the framework of the civil service. Many have some knowledge, but few have detailed understanding of specific rules, let alone the entities and processes that enforce them.
On average, survey respondents reported being “a little familiar” to “moderately familiar” with the civil service framework. They were most familiar with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—which combats hiring and workplace discrimination—and agencies’ inspectors general, who investigate waste, fraud and abuse. They were least familiar with Title 5, the statutes that govern pay, benefits, performance management and other aspects of their day-to-day work experience.
One striking example of limited familiarity is that only 62% of survey respondents said they know how to report a violation of a civil service rule.
Survey respondents and interviewees largely attributed their lack of familiarity to insufficient efforts to educate federal employees about civil service rules and the mandates of the entities that enforce them. As one respondent wrote, “I have been a civil servant for 30 years, and almost nothing I know about these institutions came through official work channels.” This echoes a 2016 study by the Merit Systems Protection Board, which estimated that less than half of federal managers and supervisors had received extensive training on the Merit System Principles and Prohibited Personnel Practices, and that some had received no training on them.
Federal employees also cited the opacity of civil service processes such as investigations and enforcement actions as a reason for their limited knowledge. One survey respondent described the need for clearer guidance on the civil service framework, “written for laypersons and published transparently on OPM’s website.” Without additional transparency, another survey respondent explained, “I think many people get these different offices [responsible for safeguarding the civil service] confused or don’t even know that these protections exist.” Given that, according to Rita Sampson, former director of OPM’s Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility, “We have to do a better job of letting people in the [federal] workforce know that when you follow these processes or use these processes, positive change can and will happen.”
To that end, some contributors to this study called for digestible summaries of investigations of civil service violations (without identifying information). “Real case studies, better stories that government employees can read in five minutes and see the scope and values of the civil service institution reflected,” suggested one survey respondent. They also said that just aggregated data—which ensures privacy—about the number and types of civil service violations and what was done in response to them helps improve the understanding of the rules and enforcement mechanisms.
Levels of Trust in the Civil Service Framework
The federal employees we interviewed and surveyed reported modest levels of trust in the civil service framework on average, similar to their levels of familiarity with it. This finding suggests neither a crisis of faith nor overweening confidence in the existing system—and also indicates efforts to increase civil servants’ trust in the civil service framework are warranted.
For example, survey respondents who are familiar with the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Office of Special Counsel, the Office of Government Ethics, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and inspectors general reported trusting them to enforce the rules and protections of the civil service a little more than “a moderate extent” on average. While they most trusted inspectors general and the EEOC and least trusted OGE, the trust differential is small, as seen in the following chart.
Survey respondents reported on average between “a small extent” and “a moderate extent” of trust in the laws and regulations designed to protect civil servants, which is a slightly lower than the levels of trust in the entities that enforce them. Many civil service protections are codified in Title 5 of U.S. Code—including the Merit System Principles, which guide federal workforce management, and the 14 federal Prohibited Personnel Practices—and the lower levels of trust in them echo respondents’ lower familiarity with Title 5 rules.
Respondents familiar with Title 5 rules reported trusting their effectiveness—to ensure fair hiring, employee equity, clear paths for career advancement and effective performance management—between “a small extent” and “a moderate extent” on average. They least trust Title 5 to ensure supervisors can effectively address inadequate performance. Otherwise, as seen in the following chart, their levels of trust are similar across categories.
Remarkably, of the 62% of survey respondents who know how to report a civil service violation, 90% said they would, indicating a high level of trust in protections from retribution despite a moderate level of familiarity with them.
Drivers of Trust in the Civil Service Framework
The apparent connection between respondents’ familiarity with and trust in the rules of the civil service and the entities that enforce them suggests that familiarity is a driver of workforce trust in the civil service framework. Because it is hard to fully trust something not well understood, increasing federal employees’ knowledge of the framework may be a way to improve their trust in it. Furthermore, according to a 2019 Merit Systems Protection Board study, increasing familiarity with civil service guardrails like the Prohibited Personnel Practices could improve their effectiveness, which also could increase workforce trust.
In addition, according to contributors to this study, a number of other interconnected dynamics influence workforce trust in the civil service framework. These factors are explained below:
- Previous experiences and perceptions
- Transparent processes
- Enforcement efficiency
- Leadership commitment
Limited knowledge about civil service rules and the authority of the entities that enforce them can skew civil servants’ expectations about them. When federal employees’ expectations of the civil service framework are not met—even if such expectations are unrealistic—the ensuing disappointment can easily morph into mistrust.
For example, not all public servants understand the role of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which adjudicates allegations of workplace discrimination and is authorized to provide “make whole” relief—such as monetary payments and job placements that put the person who experienced discrimination “as near as possible in the situation [they] would have occupied” if it had not occurred. What the EEOC does not do is discipline federal employees. Those who do not understand this may be dismayed when EEOC adjudications end without the agency directly punishing violators of civil service and EEO laws.
“They want EEOC to come in and put managers in handcuffs and bring them out of the building,” explained Dexter Brooks, associate director of EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations. “And when they don’t see that type of accountability it creates kind of a frustration and a distrust— ‘Oh, these laws are not doing anything.’”
Prior Experiences and Perceptions
Previous direct or indirect experiences federal employees have had with civil service rules and processes can also influence their trust in them. Based on personal experience with or perceptions of colleagues reporting a civil service violation, for example, many survey respondents said they think investigations of violations usually side with agency management over staff—in part because they believe agencies are better equipped than staff to navigate civil service processes. “The chances of prevailing are slim,” one wrote, “because the deck is stacked in favor of the government.” Another respondent added, “The entire structure for reporting and addressing issues is designed to put the victim in a more vulnerable position.” As a result, wondered a third, “How do you prove favoritism? You can’t really.”
Furthermore, of the 10% of survey respondents who said they know how to report a civil service violation but would not, many cited their perception of insufficient protections from retribution as the reason why. “Actual real-world evidence shows that whistleblowing remains a very dangerous endeavor,” one wrote. Similarly, fear of retaliation is one reason why employees of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have not reported perceived instances of political interference, according to a 2022 Government Accountability Office report.
Some survey respondents and interviewees, however, described frustration with the civil service framework’s ability to hold low-performing employees accountable. Others said their trust in the framework is undermined by what they described as employees’ “frivolous” claims for civil service protections.
Transparent civil service investigations, enforcement actions and other processes may be able to bolster confidence in civil service rules as accountability mechanisms. Such transparency can help ensure, according to survey respondents, “that there is no bias,” “that the civil service workforce is protected from political coercion and unfair treatment” and that “employees who abuse various systems are actually held accountable for their actions.”
Transparency can be rooted in efforts to educate federal employees about the civil service framework, including onboarding sessions, routine professional development and other trainings focused on the rules of the civil service, the enforcement entities and how to engage them to redress civil service violations.
For example, according to the Merit Systems Protection Board, when agencies conclude that alleged violations of Prohibited Personnel Practices have not occurred, they “should seek to do a better job of explaining to employees the reasons behind management decisions [perceived to be violations] so that employees can better understand the merit-based reasons for a particular outcome and avoid misperceptions in the future.”
Available data about investigations, enforcements and other civil service processes is another important part of this transparency—but availability alone is insufficient. Such data must also be easily accessible, widely promoted and in compliance with federal privacy rules to influence workforce trust.
“Prohibited Personnel Practices work. But I think there’s a transparency problem where not everybody sees that they work,” explained Rita Sampson, former director of OPM’s Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility. “If people don’t know what happened to the person who filed the complaint or the outcome of their complaint, then sometimes they just don’t want to go that route [of seeking redress for civil service violations].”
The No FEAR Act of 2002 requires agencies to collect and publicly report statistical data about violations of employment discrimination and whistleblower protection laws and the outcomes of the resulting investigations. While we did not specifically ask interviewees and survey respondents about the statute, the fact that only a few federal employees acknowledged it when asked about their familiarity with civil service rules is further evidence of the need to improve awareness of and access to data that tracks civil service processes. (Awareness of such data, however, may increase with the passage of the Elijah E. Cummings Federal Employee Antidiscrimination Act of 2020, which updates the No FEAR Act by requiring agencies to post notifications on their website about findings of discrimination or retaliation. These notifications must remain posted for at least one year.)
Another driver of trust, according to survey respondents and interviewees, is the ability of the agencies and offices charged with protecting the civil service to operate effectively. Sufficient staffing of these entities is critical as position vacancies and the disruptions of turnover can backlog investigations and delay their resolutions. Suggested one survey respondent, “Fully staff them so they can adequately respond to situations and strengthen their enforcement powers.” For example, the Merit Systems Protection Board operated without a quorum between January 2017 and March 2022, leaving it unable to issue final decisions on employee appeals of agency personnel actions. In addition, staff shortages can limit communication about these prolonged processes, leading to frustrations with the black-box effect that can harden into doubt about efficiency, integrity and reliability.
Leadership Commitment to the Civil Service Framework
According to the Merit Systems Protection Board, “The primary responsibility for avoiding [Prohibited Personnel Practices]—and attaining the ideals described in the [Merit System Principles]—lies with the employing agencies.” This may be why the federal employees who contributed to this study indicated that the biggest driver of their trust in the civil service framework is how career and politically appointed leaders understand, adhere to and implement civil service rules. For example, consistent enforcement of rules cultivates trust in their equity, whereas inconsistency can erode that trust. Similarly, supervisors and managers who prioritize the merit principles when hiring and promoting staff may engender confidence in them, whereas those who do not might undermine faith in the guardrails designed to prevent nepotism. This underscores the importance of leaders’ commitment to the civil service framework. It also suggests that workforce trust in the framework can be bolstered by ensuring leaders have a fluent understanding of civil service protections, accountability mechanisms and the responsibilities of the entities that enforce them.