Finding Flexibility

Why are the happiest workers in government so happy?

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, has been on something of a one-man mission during the past decade to give federal managers more flexibility to manage. He's sought to give them more control over hiring, greater ability to reward hard workers and more discretion over benefits. Unable to get much governmentwide reform through Congress, Voinovich has instead fought agency by agency, getting Congress to pass into law flexible personnel rules for places such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NASA and the Government Accountability Office. Interestingly, those three agencies topped a recent survey of federal employees as the best places to work in government.

"That tickles me," he says. He sees the survey results as vindication, and they raise an interesting question: Does giving managers more power lead to happier workers?

As a former mayor and governor, Voinovich says it was natural for him to focus on human resources issues when he became a senator in the late 1990s. "We realized that for agencies to get the folks they need that we needed to give them more flexibilities," he says.

Voinovich worked with the heads of the three agencies to give them leeway they needed to attract and retain workers. From better relocation benefits to higher student loan repayment help to bringing back retirees without cutting their annuities, he shepherded through Congress a variety of tools for managers to use. Voinovich says: "One was as simple as if you decided you wanted to come work for the federal government, and you go home and say to your spouse, 'I'd like to work for the federal government,' and she says, 'Fine, what kind of leave do you get?' 'Well, if I'm here for a year I get two weeks; if I'm here for three years I get three; and after 15 years I get a month,' and she says, 'I'm not sure I like that.' " Voinovich helped get the agencies the power to offer mid-career professionals more leave. "That's pretty simple stuff," he says.

Many federal workers have been wary of giving their bosses more power over pay and benefits. Some worry that their bosses would use that power not for meritorious purposes but to enrich themselves or their favorite cronies instead. Others are concerned that their bosses simply aren't good at assessing employees' value to agencies.

Indeed, the top marks employees give to NRC, NASA and GAO merely could reflect the intellectual pleasure employees feel working at agencies with interesting missions and challenging assignments.

Where better for a space scientist to be than NASA? What auditor wouldn't want to work at GAO? To Voinovich, however, there's something more. At a recent oversight hearing on NASA, he talked about the management flexibilities that he helped secure for the space agency. "You could just see the smiles on the faces of the people sitting behind the acting director," he says.

Indeed, scientists at Navy facilities where managers were granted more power over pay in the 1980s and 1990s generally reported greater satisfaction with their jobs. It wasn't particularly surprising, since most scientists saw their pay rise faster than they would have under the normal federal pay scale.

Likewise, managers at the three agencies topping the best places to work in government now have greater power to raise their employees' pay and benefits. It's probably not the managerial power that improves employee satisfaction, but how managers use it that makes the difference.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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