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Civil Service Reform Is Coming; Employees Need to Play a Role

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It’s safe to say that civil service reform is inevitable. The Trump campaign made that clear. The political winds appear to be solidly behind the need for change, and over the past decade, several states have successfully initiated reforms. Federal employees and the unions that represent them need to acknowledge what’s ahead and prepare to partner with the Trump administration to improve the way government works.

The recommended way forward was suggested in a recent Washington Post Innovations column, “How Ford turned thousands of employees into inventors.” The column’s usual focus is technology—artificial intelligence, drones and self-driving cars—but in this piece the reporter focused on innovating through employees. It confirms that even in an old line manufacturing company, an entrenched culture can be changed; given a supportive environment, employees can be a source of valuable ideas.

The discussion was not surprising but what was striking is that despite being a Washington newspaper, none of the comments following the column were from people working in government.

It’s worth reading. Ford was falling behind its competitors; just a few years ago, other “major automakers were being granted nearly twice as many patents.” Now Ford “has embraced the notion that good ideas can come from anywhere in the company.” More than 5,500 employees submitted ideas in 2016, the Post reported.

That should be highlighted in every employer’s statement of management philosophy. Employees always have ideas that have the potential to benefit their organization. That’s especially true of organizations with long-serving employees who have lived with stable work processes and systems. It flows naturally when employees are empowered and their ideas valued.

Ford, along with General Motors and Chrysler, has a history of contentious union-management relations. However, when the recession triggered a crisis for the auto companies, the United Automobile Workers (UAW) worked with the companies to survive and now, to quote from an article in The Atlantic,What One Union Learned From the Recession,” the redefined relationship “could very well be a model for how a union can work with big business to keep companies profitable while still improving life for workers.”  

Both Ford and GM have negotiated profit sharing plans with the UAW that for 2015 paid, on average, $9,300 and $11,000 respectively to union members. The turnaround confirms the value of union-management collaboration.  

Government’s situation is definitely not as dire as the auto companies but there have been well publicized performance problems. The civil service system is an impediment to addressing those problems. The system hinders the recruitment of qualified applicants, prevents effective talent management, inflates payroll costs, and makes it far too difficult to terminate poor performers.

But the performance problems will not be “solved” by annulling civil service regulations. The problems are attributable to factors beyond regulations. Ending the system will prompt the need to redefine working relationships and that will take time. Each agency is different and independent assessments will prompt different answers.

The most practical strategy to determine what needs to happen would start by soliciting input from employees. They understand better than anyone the problems impeding their day-to-day performance, and they inevitably have ideas to address the problems.

Not every employee idea will prove to be productive but the time spent discussing and evaluating ideas is likely to trigger other possibilities. Coincidentally, the day this piece was drafted the online Harvard Business Review posted an article, “Embracing Bad Ideas To Get To Good Ideas,” which argued for the value of the review process.

There are organizations where floating ideas for innovation is central to the culture. Google is one that promotes the practice in public statements. Government is never going to have Google perks like nap pods and on-site masseuses but there is no reason why government employees and their ideas should be less important.

In the words of Laszlo Bock, Google's senior vice president for people operations, in a 2013 interview with Forbes: "We try to have as many channels for expression as we can, recognizing that different people, and different ideas, will percolate up in different ways.” Bock described those channels as:

  • Google Cafés, which are designed to encourage interaction between employees.
  • Direct emails to any of the company’s leaders.
  • The Google Universal Ticketing Systems (‘GUTS’), which provides a way to file concerns about anything.
  • Google Moderator, a management tool that allows employees to post questions during tech talks or companywide meetings and then enables employees to vote for those they want answered.
  • Google’s policy of allowing engineers to spend 20 percent of their week on projects that interest them.
  • TGIF, a weekly all-hands meetings where employees can directly ask company leaders questions.
  • ‘FixIts’, 24-hour sprints where “Googlers” drop everything and focus their energy on solving a specific problem.

The approach is consistent with the Obama Administration’s call for increased use of crowdsourcing.

Google also surveys employees about their managers, and then uses that information “to publicly recognize the best managers and enlist them as teachers and role models for the next year. The worst managers receive intense coaching and support, which helps 75 percent of them get better within a quarter,” Bock told Forbes. Federal agencies should consider adopting a similar strategy.

Monetary incentives would help to overcome resistance to reform. Ford combines profit sharing with financial rewards at each step of the process. Gain sharing or goal sharing, with payouts based in part on savings, have been proven in government. The failure to recognize and reward performance has been a source of dissatisfaction for years.

Employees want to contribute to their employer’s success. But efforts to impose reform that ignore employee concerns could trigger resistance. Reform at the state level proves it can be a win-win for everyone. Significantly, Gallup surveys show employee engagement is higher in states that no longer rely on traditional civil service systems. If the goal is improved government performance, the prospects are significantly higher when employees are involved. Their input will be essential to successful reform.

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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