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Breaking Through Government’s Time Warp

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The August newsletter from the Merit Systems Protection Board recognized the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978: The statute was “the most significant [civil service] reform since the Pendleton Act, almost 100 years earlier.” It was enacted to “to improve efficiency, accountability and performance” in an era of public dissatisfaction and distrust of government.  

Some see a parallel with current reform plans. CSRA most significantly dissolved the Civil Service Commission and replaced it with the Office of Personnel Management; created the Senior Executive Service; instituted new requirements for managing performance; and switched GS 13-15 managers and supervisors to pay for performance (although the change failed). The law also authorized agencies to undertake demonstration projects to test alternative personnel practices.

Next year, government will be “celebrating” passage of the Classification Act of 1949. That law “refined” the pay system created by the Classification Act of 1923. In five years, the framework of government’s salary system will be 100 years old. Several other reform efforts, including President Clinton’s National Performance Review, had little impact. Looking back, what stands out is the often unrecognized but consistent resistance to change.

The headline from a recent conference named the workforce as the ‘stuck gear’ in government innovation. The discussion focused on Margaret Weichert’s comments, “The people gear [of three] is . . . a lot of times where we got stopped.” That cannot be surprising. Resistance to change has been a topic of writers for decades.

Government is Stuck in the Past

Three common threads run through the reform initiatives: organization hierarchies were untouched, manager-subordinate working relationships were not affected, and jobs did not change. Reform to date has not changed the day-to-day work experience or the culture that influences the way employees behave at work.  

One of government’s experts, Steve Goodrich, sent me a comment on a recent column, “I think your article is right on. However, we just don’t seem to get there. I feel the article could have been written five, 10, 15, 20+ years ago. While its right on, the government is not making forward progress.”  

Steve is correct. It’s obviously not possible but it would be valuable to compare current working relationships between managers and their people with those of the era when CSRA was adopted. That same 30-year period in the private sector saw a revolution in the work management paradigm.

My work focuses on people management issues. As a consultant who works with government as well as businesses and hospitals, the differences in employee commitment and zeal are sometimes striking.

The problems that triggered the CSRA are still voiced frequently—it’s too hard to fire poor performers, it takes too long to hire, it’s hard to attract the best applicants, pay increases are based on longevity, etc. Technology is far more important today but the investments to date clearly have not solved the workforce problems. We also know the statutory changes have had minimal impact.

Striking evidence of government’s time warp is the title of a 1993 report from the National Academy of Public Administration, Improving the Recruitment, Retention and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. The title captures today’s workforce problem. If anything, the problem is worse today because of the aging of government’s world class knowledge workers. The skills gap has gotten worse.

The new NAPA report, No Time to Wait, Part 2, argues the civil service system and the culture it created are at the heart of government’s performance problems. The report’s authors described the problem as “a powerful and dominant culture of compliance, concentrating on following-the-rules and checking-the-boxes.” When CSRA was enacted, research on culture was in its infancy but anecdotal evidence suggests the culture has been stagnant for years and is deeply entrenched.  

The history of resistance and failures confirms a conclusion attributed to management guru Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  

The repeated studies and initiatives to reform government suggest the old saying about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. It’s clearly insanity.  

Breaking Through the Time Warp

New statutes or dictates are not the answer. Rebuilding the civil service system is essential but will take several years to impact the culture. Another failure like NSPS will set back reform possibly for years.  

The compliance culture is a problem across government. It’s reinforced by the attention to poor performers and the prevalence of risk-averse managers.

Other dimensions of culture (e.g., support for trying new ideas) vary across departments and agencies.  Larger, diversified departments like Homeland Security and Justice can have strikingly different cultures within their agencies. Local managers can establish a strong performance culture, while others undermine employee commitment.

That makes it important to address the problem at three levels—governmentwide; department and agency level; and at field level. As argued in the NAPA report, “many of the system’s current impediments are the product of administrative decisions that can be changed without having to pass new laws.” The report recommends creating a taskforce of HR specialists to develop a strategy for change. That makes sense but whatever changes are adopted will require time to gain acceptance and affect the culture.

It’s at the local level where culture has its greatest impact on performance. The local culture affects working relationships and employee engagement. The needed understanding is best developed in informal, trust-building meetings. The sessions should be held regularly to discuss possible changes to improve the work experience and performance. The following suggestions should help local leaders change the culture:

  • Leaders need to make everyone understand this is a priority. A small team can plan the communications and serve as a conduit to assure everyone is kept abreast of developments.
  • Listen to the workforce. Employees have practical ideas to move the organization forward and carry out initiatives. They are closest to the issues that can undermine operational plans.
  • Talk to—not at—people. (That contributed to the NSPS failure.) Town hall meetings and focus groups are simple but proven steps to understand cultural issues. Both leaders and employees benefit when they have opportunities to share concerns and ideas.
  • Keep an open mind. Local leaders need to listen to employees with an openness to suggestions.  Employees want jobs to be fulfilling and challenging—that’s what builds a satisfying career. They want to know their ideas are valued.

Its at the local level where new ideas are likely to emerge with teams committed to making them a success.

Workforce problems add billions to operating costs. Gallup’s research shows low engagement scores result in lower productivity. That inflates staffing costs. Using their estimates, the cost is $9,300 for each of the 2 million employees—almost $19 billion. That does not account for the added costs of increased absenteeism, correcting mistakes, safety problems, etc., attributable to low engagement. Ineffective workforce management is costly.  

It also undermines the brand of government as an employer at a time when, according to NAPA, the skills shortage is a “genuine national crisis.” Initiatives at the local level can achieve significant gains years before governmentwide reform

Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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