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Government’s Catch-22 People Problem


The skills gap is not new. Moreover, recent stories about staffing problems at Customs and Border Protection and the Bureau of Prisons show the issue is not limited to a short list of high risk mission-critical occupations. The latest example is the Secret Service.

Central to the problem across the board is the civil service bureaucracy, the General Schedule salary system, and the government’s “brand” as an employer.  The core issue is the rigidity of the civil service system and government’s inability or reluctance to tackle the real problems. Simply stated, today’s “war for talent” requires new answers. There is no solution in existing laws and regulations. 

Every year that passes without making needed changes results in the loss of more institutional knowledge and the further deterioration of morale. Each time the media focuses on performance problems, it gives new ammunition for the critics of government. Added to that are the pay and hiring freezes. Reports that it can take 18 months to get hired make the need for change obvious. For new graduates, the prospect of a federal career could hardly be less appealing.

The problem is exacerbated by projected skill shortages in the private sector for a number of occupations for the next decade. Companies are aggressive in competing for the best qualified specialists in the mission critical occupations. 

It’s Catch 22 with no easy way out. The situation has been allowed to deteriorate and the problem cannot be solved by simple—yet unlikely—actions such as salary increases. Superficially “special rate” salaries would appear to be a solution but the ludicrously long list of job series and locations that already warrant such special rates shows that’s not the answer. 

To be sure, salaries are not competitive for certain job families, but there are also federal jobs that pay above market rates. President Obama acknowledged that some months ago. Raising the GS ranges is not feasible for political as well as practical reasons. The problem is compounded by the fact that data showing which jobs are overpaid or underpaid have not been compiled for two decades.

It’s Not Just the Money

Salary levels, however, are only a small part of the problem. The literature discussing what new graduates look for in an employer is voluminous. They want an employer they can trust, they want respect, a culture of openness, rapid advancement, support for development, recognition and so on.  They supposedly have a disdain for a traditional hierarchy and for seniority based policies. They also want managers who emphasize coaching rather than control.

A very useful first step would be to ask younger employees what changes would make their work experience more satisfying. The annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey is a good starting point but the response data should then be discussed in focus groups, led by outside moderators so employees feel free to express opinions. And the most important point is that agencies should not initiate the discussion if they are not able or willing to adopt important changes.

Focus groups could also be used to learn the changes employees in other demographic groups want to see. However, it’s another Catch 22 because the groups are likely to have different, competing priorities. 

There are companies willing to listen to their employees.  They are high on the “best places to work” lists. Employees value jobs where their opinions count; it contributes to employee commitment and to improved performance. Government’s critics might be surprised that employees ask for little beyond respect and fair treatment.

Government would also benefit from feedback on federal careers from members of the professional associations relevant to the mission critical occupations, along with the several college honor societies. There would be no better way to understand the federal brand. In light of the importance of the problem to agency operations, the associations would likely agree to member surveys.

Government as an Employer of Choice

On paper, federal agencies should be able to adopt policies that emulate the people management practices in the best places to work. The goal of reform could be to make government an employer of choice. That is Tennessee’s goal in its reform initiative. What is sometimes not evident in discussions of the “best” employers is their commitment to a fundamental change in their management philosophy: They manage employees as assets; they want to get the best out of their people.

Where a desired change requires increased spending, it should be evaluated relative to the expected benefit. Reduced turnover saves money. Higher productivity reduces costs. Spending that enhances employee capabilities is best seen as an investment. Hiring better qualified employees is also an investment. To borrow a popular saying from business, “You have to spend money to make money”—or solve a staffing problem. The critics should support changes that promise better performance.

An election year is possibly the worst time to initiate reform but political ramifications are inevitable whenever the problem is finally tackled. Failing to address the problem this year means it’s likely to be pushed off until 2018 at the earliest—and even that depends on which party is in control. The problems have been accumulating for too long as it is.  

Looking back, it’s very unfortunate that the individuals who controlled the reform initiatives after 9/11 had no credentials or experience to suggest they could carry out complex organization change.  Given the way that initiative was planned and unfolded, it’s not surprising there is continued resistance spawned by distrust.   

An underlying consideration is that government’s people problem is multi-faceted. It’s best illustrated by the old story of the blind men and the elephant. Different demographic groups will have different priorities; agencies have different priorities; and of course the members of Congress have their own priorities. Until leaders define goals and a path forward that are broadly accepted, the skills gap is going to intensify—and that is not good for government or the country.

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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