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The Many Practical Hurdles to Transforming Government

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This is not was the first nor is it likely to be the last column prompted by the Trump administration’s plan to reorganize government. There appears to be broad based agreement that it’s needed, especially when it comes to upgrading technology. To repeat the title from a recent column, “Performance Specialists Like Trump’s Management Agenda.”

This is not the first time a president has tried to reinvent government. President Clinton’s 1993 Government Performance and Results Act had similar goals. Clinton issued Executive Order 12871 in October 1993 to call for civil service reforms and workforce cuts. In the end government, was not reinvented; GPRA was not implemented until 1999 and the people management changes were forgotten.

Coincidentally the question, “Can Government Be Run Like a Business?” was recently discussed on the Sirius radio show, Knowledge@Wharton, by the University of Maryland’s Philip Joyce and Wharton’s Peter Conti-Brown. Their conclusion, albeit simplified, is that success in one sector does not transfer easily to the other.

The Office of Personnel Management clearly anticipates one of the hurdles. Its new 119-page “Workforce Reshaping Operations Handbook” aims to “provide assistance to agencies that are considering and/or undergoing some type of reshaping.”  The length of the guide tells you how extensive the problems are likely to be.

Reorganizing is easy on paper but Trump’s proposed $18 billion in cuts over the final five months of the fiscal year will disrupt working relationships and undermine employee commitment. It will need to be managed as organizational change that would be difficult in any organization. Government does not have the experts in change management that would be needed.

The recent report from the Bipartisan Policy Center, “Building a F.A.S.T. Force: A Flexible Personnel System for a Modern Military” highlights a core problem. Although the report is focused on the military, it argues for authorizing a separate Defense Department civilian personnel system. A side heading captures government’s problem: people management is “trapped in the past.”  The report reiterates a point that is obvious: When the civilian civil service system was formalized in 1949, “70 percent of white collar civilian positions performed clerical work. Contrast that with today, where many defense civilians work in highly technical professions like cybersecurity, acquisition program management, financial management, science, and engineering.”

The system today contributes to a range of workforce management challenges. The recruiting and hiring process has been a problem for years. There was a labor-management initiative several years ago to improve performance management that essentially failed. The OPM website recognizes that “establishing individual accountability and dealing with poor performers” are ongoing issues. The planned reorganization will soon highlight another weakness—succession planning and workforce planning. If individual strengths and weaknesses were documented, it would facilitate the planning that should precede the downsizing.

But the highest barrier will prove to be the General Schedule salary system combined with the classification system. Both are solidly entrenched in the past. It’s very likely they are the oldest in the world. There are no incentives other than employee commitment to solving the country’s problems.  Corporations rely on the reward system to provide a focus on organizational priorities. That’s absent in government.

Once the reorganization begins, the classification system will necessitate that every redefined job be documented and reclassified. I recall a conversation years ago with an HR manager who had worked at the China Lake Naval research lab. That was the first demonstration project authorized by the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act. It involved the merger of two labs—the HR staff concluded it would take two years to reclassify all the jobs affected by the merger. The lab’s commanding officer concluded he could not accept the delay; it was then that the concept of salary banding was conceived.

That was only a research lab. It’s almost impossible to imagine the workload to document and reclassify all the jobs that would be affected by governmentwide reorganization. Government’s HR “classifiers” retired years ago. Supervisors and job incumbents can rewrite the job descriptions but trusting them to be honest and allowing them to take the lead in reclassifying jobs would likely result in over grading. The banded salary system model solves that problem.

Another hurdle, largely unrecognized, is agency culture. To improve agency performance, employees will need to approach their jobs differently, develop new knowledge and skills, and often redefine their relationships with co-workers. Their supervisors will also need to change the way they approach the supervisory role. However, behavior patterns are formed in response to the culture and very difficult to change. The acceptance of individual accountability, as an example, is a product of an organization’s culture. Risk avoidance is a cultural attribute that is another of the barriers.

These are problems no one from the private sector has ever experienced. The members of Mr Kushner’s SWAT team are not going to find it easy to gain the cooperation of employees anxious about their futures.  Change is much easier in a corporation.  

Realistically, there are hundreds of professionals working in consulting firms and academia who regularly address each of these problems in other sectors. But those with hands-on experience in government are few. These are problems that have been rarely addressed successfully in public agencies.

President Trump has focused on important changes in the organization and management of government.  His goals are similar to President Clinton’s when he took office. Reinventing government then appeared to have broad support but aside from the passage of GPRA and over 1,200 Hammer awards, government was largely unchanged after eight years. It would be interesting to learn if any of the awards are still prominently displayed. I agree with the performance specialists—the planned changes are badly needed—but no reorganization can succeed if employees are not on board.

Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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