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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

What Really Ails the Federal Workforce

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The September symposium on “finding what ails the federal workforce,” hosted by the Office of Management and Budget and Mitre Corp., was perhaps the first that brought together experts who work in separate spheres and hold very different perspectives on workforce problems. Far more common are meetings where specialists talk only to their peers.

Workforce management has been a theme of similar conferences for private sector audiences going back more than 20 years. I planned and managed annual Wharton conferences on topics like engagement and workforce planning in the 1990s. Since then the best workforce practices in the private sector have been discussed in countless publications and conferences.

We know what’s broken in the civil service system. Leading the list is the General Schedule. We have a solid understanding of the alternatives. At this point the defenders of the system are silent.

The report on the symposium highlighted nine recommendations “for further review and consideration.”  Each would be a positive change but realistically nothing on the list replaces or even reforms elements of the civil service system. The exception is the need for more defensible performance management systems to support the alignment of pay and performance. Agencies have never committed to effective performance management.

Margaret Weichert, now OPM’s acting director, focused on the real obstacles to “fixing” the workforce problems in an appearance on the TV show, “Government Matters.” She recognized that failures like the National Security Personnel System occur in their implementation. She argued, “We need to be rooted in a deep understanding of root causes of challenges of why things haven’t changed.”

She is correct, of course. Things—the work environment specifically—have not changed in decades. The new report from the National Academy of Public Administration, “No Time To Wait, Part 2: Building a Public Service for the 21st Century” reinforces her point.

Government’s workforce problems will not be resolved simply by adopting private sector human capital policies and practices. Weichert’s “deep understanding” is essential and should start with an assessment of how the differences in the workplace culture in government differ from what is common in the private sector. The differences might appear to be subtle but contribute to what NAPA called “a culture of compliance.”

The Limits of Private Sector Models

It’s understandable that government looks to the private sector for best practices. However, my experience in both sectors has convinced me the differences explain why things haven’t changed.

Possibly the most important difference is that in business as well as most private organizations the decisions governing pay and the assessment of performance are normally confidential. Employees certainly talk with colleagues but there are no opportunities for broad comparisons.  

The day I drafted this piece, the Harvard Business Review website, The Daily Review, posted the article “The Motivating (and Demotivating) Effects of Learning Others’ Salaries.” The authors found that employees want greater transparency in salary management but do not want individual salaries disclosed. Government’s salary transparency, while perhaps necessary in a democracy, highlights the possibility organizational change will not treat employees equally.

There are other differences that should be considered as well:

  • Pay for performance has broad acceptance and a long history in business. Teams and individuals are rewarded for performing better than expected—that is, they surpass their goals—and that subtlety supports the changes needed to raise performance levels.
  • Today in business, innovation and risk taking are expected and valued. That influences the way employees view their roles and their behavior. Businesses could not survive if executives and managers acted to avoid all risk.
  • Companies have their share of ineffective managers and supervisors, but the pressure to satisfy or exceed performance expectations is overriding. Successful companies are far more likely to invest in developing effective management skills. The best are rewarded.
  • Trust is always an issue in working relationships. The last century was dominated by an “labor v. management” approach to workforce management. With the emergence of knowledge jobs and the focus on engagement, employees are now empowered and trusted to tackle problems.
  • Finally, in business change is the only constant. Companies have to respond quickly to developments in their markets and that influences employee readiness to accept change. Agile is the current buzzword.

This is not to suggest that companies and their employees are open to change initiatives. But with leadership, a credible rollout strategy and effective communications combined with the prospect of rewards for success, employees normally accede to change. In contrast to government, outside groups generally support rather than oppose change. In government, the forces at work support the status quo.

Strategies to Enable Change

The Mitre report summarized the challenge in developing a viable workforce strategy as having data and using data—“the right data”—related to changing environmental demands and to “the nature of work, who does it, and what skills and tools are required.”   

The report also recognized the importance successful organizations place on putting “people at the center of their strategies and focus on enhancing the employee experience and employee value.”

But the report failed to acknowledge the central importance of securing and sustaining the buy-in of employees to changes in the way they and their careers are managed. Some work groups are likely to accept announced changes, but resistance is always possible and has been the subject of books going back decades.

Resistance is rarely overt. The reasons initiatives like the National Security Personnel System or the Clinton reinvention of government were not successful have never been fully documented but a common thread is that they did not secure employee commitment. Federal unions were at least nominally involved in planning the reinvention of government. Today the Hammer awards have been forgotten.

To generalize, employees anticipate announced changes will disturb the status quo, possibly affect their careers, and require them to develop new skills and new working relationships. The level of trust frequently contributes to resistance. Few people welcome change, especially in environments that have been stable for years. Government agencies have been far more stable than the typical company.

Companies have a more extensive tool bag to promote acceptance of change, from lucrative incentives to explicit or implicit coercion. They are also more likely to involve experienced change management facilitators—but with all the resources companies expect and plan for resistance.  

Rather than looking to the business world to develop change strategies, it would be more productive to consider what has worked in government.  

A recommended strategy is involving the affected employees in the planning. That’s common in higher education and healthcare. They understand better than any outside “expert” what needs to change and are a great resource for problems like inadequate training, bias and discrimination, etc. Focus groups are well qualified to provide an insightful understanding of what’s going to work. Follow up sessions after six months or a year would be useful.

Where there’s a need for critical job skills, agencies must understand those markets and develop a strategy that realistically promises satisfying, challenging careers. Professional groups can be helpful here.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency created small teams to identify occupational developments along with emerging job-specific skills and recommend steps to stay current. They play a role in planning change. Their recommendations will be accepted more readily than outside experts.

The missing element that’s badly needed is a credible, defensible process to identify and reward the most valuable contributors.

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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