In the Line of Fire

Another president wants to weed out managers, but agencies still are reeling from earlier cuts.

It's unclear whether President Obama will follow through on a campaign pledge to fire managers of poor-performing programs as part of his proposed government reform plan. But federal managers are urging him to rethink the idea, noting that the government already has "been there, done that."

At a campaign appearance in September 2008, Obama said he would create a "high-performance team" to evaluate every federal agency and office, after which the administration would dismiss underperforming managers, cut funding for wasteful programs and use technology to improve government efficiency. "We cannot meet 21st century challenges with a 20th century bureaucracy," he said.

But the Government Managers Coalition-made up of five federal associations that represent more than 200,000 members-has urged Obama to reconsider an attempt to arbitrarily trim the federal management ranks. "Instead, we encourage you to think about the long-term impact that qualified managers have on the ability of an agency to meet mission-critical goals," the coalition wrote in a Dec. 17, 2008, letter to then-transition team co-chairman, John Podesta.

The coalition points to attempts by former administrations to create a more effective government by focusing on what often is viewed as a bloated federal workforce. The Clinton administration, for example, designed the National Performance Review, which called for increasing the ratio of workers to managers from 7-to-1 to 15-to-1. NPR also resulted in the loss of 377,000 federal jobs, the coalition says.

"In reaching President Clinton's reduction goals, agencies eliminated thousands of management positions without any measurement of the effectiveness of the effort and undoubtedly have had a direct impact on the increasing backlog of cases at the Social Security Administration and Veterans' Affairs," the letter stated.

The coalition has encouraged the administration to focus its agency reviews on determining where managers are needed and which crucial skills are required, and developing and training managers to lead their subordinates effectively within the context of government and agency performance goals. The coalition also has advised the Obama team to allow the Government Accountability Office to study the consequences of actions taken in the 1990s that initially reduced the number of federal managers.

It's questionable whether an across-the-board cut of managers is feasible, given all the protections afforded to federal employees. "If you're going to try to get rid of an ineffective manager, it's easy to say, harder to do," says Bill Bransford, general counsel for the Senior Executives Association-one of the five groups in the Government Managers Coalition. "We have a fairly sophisticated due process system to make sure those people who deserve to lose their jobs do."

Despite the due process system, however, Bransford says thinning the ranks could be accomplished through other means, including reductions in force, attrition, reorganization, or by moving some managers into nonsupervisory roles. But he cautioned against rushing into such measures, noting that any further cutbacks in management "would result in a loss of government efficiency."

Darryl Perkinson, national president of the Federal Managers Association, agrees that any cut in the managerial ranks could be problematic, especially given that most supervisors are facing heavier workloads and more responsibility. At the Defense Department, for example, civilians are increasingly deploying to war zones, and employees and managers also spend more time creating performance objectives and ratings now that the National Security Personnel System is in place, he says.

"Pay for performance is more labor-intensive and does take a greater amount of managers' time than the previous system of pass-fail did," he says. "If the dynamic is to keep those pay-for- performance systems, that also has to be added into the equation."

Perkinson says he's impressed with Obama's plan to review agency programs. "They may find when they look at the programs that there are some that are in-effective, and thus, there are managers who are ineffective because the programs are ineffective," he says. "Many managers can be utilized on programs that are effective for the government."

In addition, Perkinson says he's looking forward to working with the new chief performance officer in determining which tools managers need, as well as how to address a possible overabundance of managers in the Washington area. "I think there's some accuracy to the assessment that we may be top-heavy in management in the D.C. area," he says. "I think employees out in the field would welcome the help of some of the managers in D.C. to see what challenges we face to serve the American public every day."

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