By alienating field office managers from discussions about an upcoming agency reorganization, headquarters officials at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have caused anxiety and reduced employee morale, a union representative said Wednesday.
In the face of an increasingly tight budget, EEOC leaders have decided that they need to streamline operations, but have made no final decisions as to how they will go about it, said Joan Ehrlich, an agency spokeswoman. They are considering several of the controversial recommendations presented in a February report by the National Academy of Public Administration, a congressionally chartered nonprofit organization.
The EEOC could save money by moving or closing some field offices, encouraging flexible work arrangements and investing in new technology, NAPA suggested. NAPA also recommended that the agency set up a national call center to field customer questions. The call center would not replace local offices, but would relieve some of the burden placed on them by giving customers an additional source of information, according to Ehrlich.
But talk of consolidating offices, flexible work arrangements and establishing a national call center has generated significant anxiety in the field, according to Gabrielle Martin, president of the National Council of EEOC Locals No. 216, part of the American Federation of Government Employees. To add to the anxiety, EEOC leaders have not opened an effective dialogue to discuss potential changes with field managers, Martin said.
EEOC headquarters officials have made numerous attempts to gather input from field managers and discussions about reorganization strategies are by no means over, Ehrlich countered. The agency held an open meeting for all employees following the release of the NAPA report, and is in the process of analyzing at least 300 comments from that meeting, she said.
In addition, EEOC leaders have held meetings with various groups of field managers and have asked all field managers to submit their suggestions for restructuring the agency by June 30, Ehrlich said. Agency headquarters is also planning to hold an open hearing in August on the possibility of creating a national call center.
But a top manager at one of the EEOC's district offices echoed the concerns of Martin, the union president. "There's no real interaction between headquarters and the field staff," said the manager, who asked to remain anonymous. "They're shrouded in secrecy. You don't really know what they're [planning on] doing or why."
The manager added that he believes EEOC leaders have already made some decisions about the restructuring, but are keeping them private to maintain the appearance that they are considering input from field offices and stakeholders. For example, he said he believes that EEOC headquarters is determined to create the call center, despite any potential opposition. Concerns that the center would be a waste of money and valuable resources have fallen on deaf ears, the manager said.
He said that it would take six months to one year to train call center staff to answer questions correctly. Even then, the call center would likely end up forwarding a high percentage of inquiries back to field offices. From this perspective, the call center would divert financial resources from the field offices, without lightening their workload.
Martin added that she sees the call center as part of a wider effort by EEOC leaders to centralize services and consolidate offices, an effort that would not only uproot the agency's field employees, but would prevent them from providing adequate customer service. For instance, the agency serves migrant workers and other populations that are less likely to have telephones and need an office within traveling distance, so they can show up at the door requesting help.
Regardless of the EEOC's final reorganization strategy, field offices need to feel that they have had a real chance to have an effect on the plan, Martin said. Otherwise, morale will suffer, she said. EEOC employees will have a hard time performing if they feel their jobs are in jeopardy, or if they feel circumstances beyond their control will prevent them from serving their customers well, she said.
Reorganizations are never easy, Ehrlich said, but field managers should assure their workers that no decisions have been made yet. The agency originally aimed to release a draft reorganization plan in early summer and a final plan by the end of the fiscal year, but has decided not to rush to meet those goals, according to Ehrlich.
"We're going to do this in a deliberate way at a deliberate speed," she said. "[Chairwoman Cari Dominguez] is being very careful."
Ehrlich also urged field managers to correct "misrepresentations" of ideas on the table. For instance, a restructuring will not result in closing a significant number of field offices, she said. "Consolidation doesn't mean offices are dropping off the face of the earth." Rather, some employees might have alternative work arrangements such as telecommuting. The reorganization might even mean the EEOC adds new offices in underserved areas, she said.
Employees in the field offices should also remember that budget shortfalls are a real problem for the EEOC, making some form of change absolutely necessary, Ehrlich said. Agency leaders had to coax an extra $15 million out of Congress in April to avoid sending its nearly 2,800 workers on 16 to 19 days of unpaid leave.