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It’s Not Too Late to Strengthen the Workforce


This headline on the tentative budget deal says it all: “Feds Dodge Bullet in Budget Deal, But Sequester Cuts Still Coming.” Federal workers should apparently feel good because there are no specific plans to reduce pay or benefits. In reality, the deal extends the negative atmosphere through the end of the Obama presidency.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., would have been correct that pay is not the reason for low morale if he had made the statement three or four years ago. But after five years of pay freezes and minimal increases, pay is an issue because the way it’s been handled communicates a lack of respect for employees. According to a recent report from the Society for Human Resource Management, respect and trust between leaders and employees are the two most important factors that contribute to job satisfaction. On both issues, it should not be surprising morale is so low.

If reform could have started on a positive track when the Obama presidency began, government would undoubtedly be performing at a significantly higher level today. But 2009 was very obviously not the time to rethink the civil service. In addition to the economic problems triggered by the Great Recession, the White House had to deal with developing plans to end the National Security Personnel System. The initial pay freeze was announced in the fall of 2010. Whatever plans the president had when he was elected were pushed to the back burner.

The president now has a little more than a year to act on the plans in the budget to “strengthen the federal workforce.” It is all too clear that broad civil service reform is not feasible, but there are a number of initiatives can and should be undertaken. Here are several recommendations that (aside from STEM salary increases) could be adopted at minimal cost:

Rethink the Senior Executive Service. There is broad agreement this is needed. If government is going to change, it has to start at the top. Government should consider best practices from the private sector.

Eliminate unnecessary layers of management. It’s been reported that the layers of management have increased. The payroll savings from eliminating layers would be significant. More importantly, the broader span of control would introduce more autonomy and reduce micromanagement. That would empower employees and make greater use of their capabilities.

Introduce dual career ladders. Too often the most technically proficient employees are moved to supervisory roles. They would be far more productive and realize greater satisfaction in a technical role. The special rate authority may make this possible.

Develop new methods for selecting supervisors. Supervisors should be selected based on evidence that they have the interpersonal skills to “get the best” from employees. It would be a mistake to require the same methods in every agency. The style of supervision that is effective in a hospital or in the Park Service, for example, are not the same.

Introduce calibration committees to review promotions, bonus awards and terminations. Committees of peer level managers are widely used to review staffing decisions. Research confirms it increases consistency and a sense of fairness. Employees need to know discrimination and bias will be minimized.

Reserve bonus awards for the most effective managers. Bonus awards are far too subjective. It would be valuable to use funds to reward the most effective managers. The award decisions should be based on data and subject to committee approval.

Use the special rate authority to create a separate STEM pay system. These jobs are too important and GS pay rates are far below market levels. These are knowledge jobs, and career progress should be based on proven capabilities. Government needs a system for these job families that is not dependent on seniority.

Analyze the reasons millennials leave government. Agencies cannot afford to lose young talent. Their experience and the reasons for leaving government have to be understood and corrective actions implemented. Poor supervisors should be moved back to nonsupervisory roles.

Develop new practices to manage new graduates. The automatic promotions to the top of career ladders have to stop. It contributes to a sense of entitlement and downplays the importance of coaching and feedback. Employees need to earn promotions. They should be assigned to the best supervisors. It would be possible to develop performance management systems focused on the skills associated with entry level jobs.

One of the four pillars of the President’s Management Agenda is “People and culture, with a goal of creating a culture of excellence.” The recommended initiatives are important steps in “unlocking the full potential of today’s federal workforce and building the workforce we need in the future.”

The need for reform could be an issue in the presidential campaign. The Brookings Institution paper, “Where Have All the Reinventors Gone?” was not focused on civil service reform, but if the status quo continues or change is limited to tinkering around, government will be an easy target next year. Federal employees could lose big.

The Government Executive ebook “Managing the Workforce” highlights how leaders can bring out the best in people and create higher performing organizations. Hopefully at the end of 2016 it will be possible to compile a second volume around success stories.

Howard Risher managed compensation consulting practices for two national firms and has written four books, including Aligning Pay and Results. He has an MBA and Ph.D. from the Wharton School.

(Image via ktsdesign/

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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