Regional Powerhouses

Federal executive boards (FEBs) are Uncle Sam's unsung heroes. They kicked off the campaign that won pay reform in 1990. They are the lifeblood of reinvention. They held federal agencies together during the earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, snowstorms, bombings and shutdowns of recent years. Now these regional powerhouses may well become the models for the stripped down, tight-fisted, devolved and partnership-based government of the 21st century.

The boards, which group the top executives of all federal agencies represented in a city or state, were created by President John F. Kennedy 35 years ago this month to improve communications between field offices and his Administration. But whether you work in a Washington headquarters office, or are among the 85 percent of employees in the field, federal executive boards have helped improve your working conditions and may loom even larger in your future.

Without the boards, pay reform might have come far more slowly or not at all, for example. About nine years ago, agencies represented by the New York and Los Angeles boards hit a hiring brick wall. High living costs in the two metropolises had inflated private sector salaries to the point where federal agencies no longer could compete, nor could they persuade employees working elsewhere to transfer into the two costly cities. In New York, the FBI already had won a special 25 percent salary add-on for its staffers, remembers Susan Kossin, executive director of the New York FEB since 1975. "No one would come to New York. We put a group together to study it. We went to [the Office of Personnel Management] with a proposal for locality pay because the FBI had gotten it," Kossin recalls. The resulting report, "New York's Not So Quiet Employment Crisis," landed on desks at OPM just about the same time as a similar report from Los Angeles.

"In Los Angeles we said we didn't want 25 percent [because] in some cases people were 150 percent below private sector [salaries], particularly in technical jobs, accountants and some administrative people," says Sherry Rollman, longtime executive director of the Los Angeles board, "The IRS couldn't even hire accountants here." So in the late 1980s, the board put together a team of IRS auditors to study similar positions in the private, local government and federal sectors to measure the pay gap and prove it.

The combination of media coverage of the reports and help in Congress-New York Democrat Gary Ackerman chaired the House Post Office and Civil Service compensation subcommittee at the time-created enough pressure to win special 8 percent pay boosts for three high-cost centers: New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Those locality add-ons galvanized the drive for federal pay reform that ended in the current system, enacted in 1990, in which labor costs are surveyed in specific areas to set pay levels that vary by locality.

Mastering Disaster

When disaster strikes federal field offices, the boards often are the only ones coordinating aid to federal workers and agencies. In the hours and days immediately after 9:04 a.m. on April 19, 1995, the Oklahoma executive board demonstrated this vital service. LeAnn Jenkins, the Oklahoma board's executive director, was the only person in America who could give rescuers, law enforcement officers, survivors, families, the rest of the government and the news media the names, agencies and locations of employees working in the Alfred P. Murrah federal building that day. Without Jenkins' list, identifying survivors and those remaining in the broken building could have taken weeks. Jenkins spent many nights at the bombing relief center consoling family members, posting notices of available aid and seeing to families' needs. Her days were spent getting agency phones forwarded out of the Murrah building and finding office space to get agencies up and running again.

In the aftermath of Oklahoma City, boards nationwide are shoring up their emergency preparedness plans. "No agency has the internal management of the federal government as its role in an emergency," says New York's Kossin. In most cities, agencies and employees have nowhere to go but to the board when their offices are destroyed by hurricanes, floods or earthquakes. "I don't know who else besides the FEB would provide that kind of support if another building blew up," says H.C. "Mac" McClure, chairman of the Oklahoma board. In addition to continuing to coordinate response to the bombing and the trial of suspected bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, Jenkins has been traveling from board to board speaking on ways to prepare for the worst. "We've become the guiding light about being ready and being prepared," McClure says.

In the days after the Murrah building attack, other federal buildings received bomb threats, among them New York's Jacob Javits building. Kossin, the board director there, is no stranger to adversity. In 1980, she developed an alternative transportation plan to get federal employees to work during the New York transit strike. She coordinated the board's planning after the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, and in 1995, set up a council of security officers from local agency offices. The New York board now runs a year-round, 24-hour, automated communications system out of the Federal Aviation Administration's operations center.

Into the Breach

It's not just during emergencies that the boards step into the breach for workers in the field. They have become, by default, human resources offices for many agencies, helping them share costs and slots in training sessions; contracting for citywide employee assistance programs (EAPs), child-care and other aid; and creating consortia to provide alternative dispute resolution services, among other things.

First in Seattle and now in St. Louis and other cities, the boards have contracted with state and local governments and universities to train federal employees as mediators so they can serve as free or inexpensive facilitators during disputes about race or sex bias, union contracts, contract awards, benefit claims and other matters.

The New York board has taken the lead on work-family issues, says Kossin. "My overall concern is that there is no advocacy in the federal government for the people that work for us, especially since OPM has been downsized almost out of existence." Thus, starting in the 1970s, the New York board was the first to contract for comprehensive, citywide, interagency EAP services. In the 1980s, the board created Fed Kids at 26 Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, one of the first federal child-care centers and the first child-care center of any kind to be housed in a downtown New York office building.

In 1993, Kossin got federal funding for the New York Working Family's Institute, which offers free parenting workshops-covering topics such as dealing with anger, helping children learn in elementary school and discipline-every six weeks for federal employees. The board recently printed copies of an education and resource booklet, "Domestic Violence: Finding Safety and Support," for every federal worker in the New York-New Jersey area. "We've known there have been [domestic violence] incidents in the [federal] workplace," Kossin says. "We had a [domestic violence-related] death at a Social Security office this year in a hostage situation." She anticipates the need for employee support will grow as downsizing increases stress on staffers and agencies. "Agency headquarters are pulling out of EAPs and doing 800 [hot line] numbers because they're cheaper, just as workplace issues are getting worse. We know when the talk of furloughs started [late last year] we had more incidents of workplace violence here."

This year's long, painful budget battle left field offices wounded by furloughs and broken morale. In most cases, FEBs were responsible for the only bright spot in a gloomy winter and spring: a sympathy-induced bounce in the image of federal workers. The boards fed the unquenchable appetites of reporters hungry to know who was working and who wasn't and to hear the personal experiences of civil servants. The resulting stories humanized bureaucrats and increased pressure on legislators to solve the budget impasse.

Discovered by Clinton

As FEBs grapple with funding and staff cuts at agency field offices, they also must juggle a pile of new responsibilities assigned by the Clinton Administration. Thanks primarily to the National Performance Review, the boards have gotten more attention from this Administration than from any other in recent memory. "Every administration takes a year or two to find the FEBs," says Jack Ratcliffe, executive director of the Philadelphia board. "When they do, they create things for us to do for them. Then things change, and we're off the radar. Then we pop up again in the next administration. It's a very cyclical process."

But the Clinton Administration was different, according to Paula Bridgham, OPM's federal executive board liaison for the last seven years. "This Administration discovered FEBs six months after they came in," Bridgham says. "Through the NPR they wanted to recognize heroes of reinvention. NPR picked up on the value of the FEBs as organizations that had outreach to the field, to the people on the front lines doing service delivery." From then on, the NPR established tight relations with the boards, using them to help host the Vice President's town meetings with employees and to identify Hammer Award candidates.

By Dec. 8, 1994, President Clinton had written to the boards asking them to throw their weight behind the reinvention effort by working to carry out his executive order on improving customer service. Last year, the Vice President wrote to agency heads asking them to support FEB customer service initiatives by letting regional and field executives waive agency rules and regulations. This April, Clinton ordered agencies to transfer excess and surplus computer equipment to schools and nonprofit groups and specifically nominated the boards as conduits for these donations. "I don't ever remember an administration that has made changes that affected people in the field like this," says Lea Chapan, executive director of the Denver board. "Years ago, when President Kennedy put out his memorandum [creating the boards], this was the way it was supposed to work."

Reinvention's Seedbeds

Indeed, Gore's reinvention group has used the boards as sources and seedbeds for its projects. The Denver board answered the President's call for customer service with an idea the NPR soon will take national. The board teamed with Denver telephone directory publisher U S West to make the "blue pages"-those listing government agency phone numbers-more user-friendly by creating an alphabetical list of federal services, as well as the traditional agency listing. The first improved listing was published one year ago. NPR soon will kick off a national blue pages project in other cities. "We're redesigning the telephone book blue pages so that you'll be able to look under "P" for passports, not "S" for State Department," Vice President Gore explained in a March 4 address, "Governing in a Balanced Budget World," at the National Press Club in Washington.

In Houston, the FEB joined state and local agencies, nonprofit groups and businesses to open the U.S. General Store for Small Business in July 1995. The store offers customers a single stop for help getting loans; finding out what the federal government is buying; solving tax problems; and meeting safety, immigration, equal opportunity, and city and state licensing regulations. The store is housed in a city-owned shopping center built with funds channeled through the Housing and Urban Development Department. It's staffed by employees of the Small Business Administration, IRS, General Services Administration, City of Houston, County Clerk's office, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Senior Corps of Retired Executives, a nonprofit, private sector group. Staff and equipment were donated.

Philadelphia's Ratcliffe hopes to go Houston one better by helping government customers get services without leaving home. "The store is a good idea, but it requires you to come to me," he says. "In a World Wide Web environment, I can set it up so you go to the library or stay in your house and pick up files and apply on line." The Philadelphia board's Web site (tsd.r3.gsa.gov/feb.htm) went live in February. Ratcliffe's dream is that it will become an "etherized business center." Already the site links to the 140 federal agencies in the area, state and city government sites, and is home to the schedule for Inside Government, the board's 5-year-old weekly radio program.

Partnership's Partisans

In his March 4 address and again in his fourth annual report on reinvention, "The Best Kept Secrets in Government," released Sept. 20, Vice President Gore repeatedly stressed partnership as the modus operandi for federal agencies in the new era of smaller government. "Been there, done that," the federal executive boards might well respond, since they have relied on interagency cooperation and joint projects with local governments, nonprofit groups and businesses for 35 years.

Begging and borrowing have become a way of life for FEBs, most of which are staffed by an executive director and a single administrative assistant. Until now, each board was sponsored by a single agency, a situation made more and more onerous as budgets shrink. But a new funding provision should ease the situation. A section of the 1997 omnibus appropriations bill permits interagency financing of the boards so all federal agencies in a city can be tapped for contributions.

The federal executive boards can offer a long list of examples for the coming partnership era. Cooperative administrative support units, for example, began in 1986 under the auspices of the Seattle and Chicago boards. They have spread to many cities where they provide inexpensive, shared photocopying, printing, audiovisual, mail room and other services to all agencies. The San Antonio board recently won a Hammer Award for a partnership with corporations, service groups, chambers of commerce and public schools. The project surveys all area public schools annually and publishes their needs. Schools have received more than 1,000 computers and a variety of other equipment and offers of classroom assistance through the project, which spends no appropriated funds and has no full-time paid staff or marketing budget. Likewise, Houston's general store, New York's domestic violence booklet, Seattle's alternative dispute resolution consortium, Oklahoma City's disaster recovery and Denver's blue pages renovation all involve significant partnership with nonfederal groups and operate on tiny budgets.

For the future, Gore has called on agencies to make partnerships with the private sector, local communities and other governments "the goal, not the exception." For the federal executive boards it simply will be business as usual.

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