The Path to Partnership 2.0

Agency and union officials should draw on lessons from the Clinton years.

In 2009, President Obama signed an executive order, similar to one President Clinton signed in 1993, establishing governmentwide labor-management forums and promoting partnerships between federal employee groups and agency officials. Supporters of Clinton-era labor-management partnerships say they fostered greater cooperation, recognized the importance of input from employees and their union reps, and brought faster resolution of contract disputes and grievances. Detractors argue the process sometimes excluded middle managers from important discussions, required senior managers to relinquish too much power, and failed to hold managers accountable for implementing partnerships.

Labor-management partnerships fared better at some agencies than others. Most important to success was support from agency chiefs and union presidents. Top executives must be prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure chief human capital officers and labor relations specialists understand that partnership is a legitimate approach to labor-management relations. Union leaders also must foster acceptance among their contract negotiations staff. The peaks and pitfalls of establishing partnerships under Clinton's executive order yielded helpful guideposts.

Agree on the Mission

Labor and management officials must develop a shared understanding of what their partnership is trying to accomplish. Each side should integrate their priorities, such as accountability, which usually ranks high for management, and empowerment, typically a union bargaining imperative.

Get It in Writing

Draft a formal partnership agreement. Such agreements detail how labor-management processes will work at various levels in each division or function, and how they will foster communication and coordination across operating units. Officials should regard the agreement as a living document subject to periodic review and modification at least annually.

Limit Consultants

Employees often team up with outside consultants to provide their labor-management forums with startup guidance and training. But officials should rely on them only to develop in-house facilitators who can support ongoing partnership activities without external assistance.

Provide Multiple Forums

Productive partnerships require regular, ongoing and sometimes intense interactions in scheduled and structured labor-management forums. They also create platforms for episodic, impromptu and informal exchanges of information and practices, including face-to-face meetings, virtual networks or task teams.

Develop a Process for Input

Cultivate a common understanding of the process leading up to management decisions-what it entails, why it is in everyone's respective interests, what are the expectations, and what actions will occur after the process has concluded. Agencies should provide managers, employees, union officials and others substantive information and involvement before establishing policies or taking actions that affect the work environment. Management officials must provide information early enough to solicit direct, informed and credible input.

Break the Consensus Barrier

Consensus is neither necessary nor attainable on every labor-management issue. Adopt a strive-for-consensus approach. Forum participants should make good-faith efforts to reach agreements each side can live with and publicly support. But use other methods-voting or delegating to the forum chair-when consensus is jointly perceived to be unnecessary or unattainable.

Develop Partnering Skills

Participants in labor-management forums should receive training in interest-based problem-solving, consensus decision-making and collaborative bargaining. Agencies should foster partnering skills through programs for union stewards and managers. Interpersonal communication creates positive agency-union partnerships and relationships with stakeholders-all of which are vital to agency performance.

Hinda Sterling and Herb Selesnick, senior partners at Sterling & Selesnick Inc., were involved in implementing Clinton administration labor-management partnerships.

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