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Memo to Government Reformers: Don’t Forget the Soft Stuff


The Trump Administration is committed to restructuring government. Recently the Volcker Alliance and the Partnership for Public Service announced a joint blueprint for reform, Renewing America’s Civil Service. Together those initiatives promise to change the bureaucracy—the regulations, rules, systems, reporting relationships, assigned duties, etc. You could argue that the prospect for each initiative to be successful is enhanced by the other. Change is long overdue.  

The civil service reform initiative is comprehensive. The plan addresses a textbook list of policies and systems under the umbrella of the typical human resources office (except employee benefits). If implemented, it would be the broadest revision of federal HR management in a century. The reform is intended “to help ensure that our government has a first-class workforce.”

Missing from the public statements, however, is any reference to the impact the changes would have on the workplace or how the reforms will help solve government’s workforce management problems. The Sept. 5 announcement highlighted the lack of interest in government careers among young people and the high percentage of employees eligible to retire in five years. Even more important than attracting well qualified applicants is keeping the best performers. Implicit is that changing the HR policies or systems is the solution.

But both the Trump administration and the Alliance/Partnership initiatives overlook the research on the importance of the “softer” issues—organizational culture, healthy organizations and employee engagement. The solid consensus is that raising performance levels depends on those issues, not HR policies or systems. A key is the working relationships employees have with their supervisor. Managers and supervisors have more impact on performance than any other factor. Both younger and older workers want to work where their contribution is recognized and valued.

Those soft issues are addressed in the many books and articles on healthy organizations as well as the many studies recognizing the best places to work. HR practices and technology are relatively easy to replace; the projects are managed behind closed doors, the focus is on technical concerns, and there are firms marketing the latest and best solutions who are anxious to help. Tackling the soft issues is very different.

To repeat a point from a prior column, these soft issues are constructs conceived to explain the reality of organizations. The starting point in each organization is an employee survey to understand what’s working and what’s not.

More important, those survey questions include words and phrases—“mutual respect”, “take initiative”, “work with enthusiasm” and “passionate”—that have become uncommon in government. In healthy organizations supervisors are selected for their people skills, not technical skills. One of the priorities of the Alliance/Partnership initiative is to develop manager and supervisor skills but that’s still a step or two away from encouraging employees to take initiative or empowering them to be innovative.

Possibly it’s not surprising that the American Psychological Association promotes the healthy organization idea but business consulting firms like McKinsey do as well. McKinsey’s research confirms, “Almost all companies perform better if they improve their health.” That should be true for government as well.

The Partnership introduced The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government in 2003  relying on responses to the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Unfortunately, that makes it impossible to compare federal agencies with non-federal organizations. (It’s also a problem with the FEVS engagement results.) There have been few reports of changes in work management practices intended to raise an agency’s ranking.

It would be instructive for federal agencies to apply for the annual Fortune magazine “Best Places” list.  The comparison might be eye opening. Government is never going to create a work environment that compares with Google but the second company on the 2017 list is Wegmans Food Markets, a regional supermarket chain with more than 45,000 employees and 90 stores, including several recently opened in the Washington area. Wegmans has been on the Fortune list for twenty 20 years. High pay is not the reason. The Fortune article reports that Wegmans employees say “there’s a lot of love and caring” and they cite “small things that make a difference.” Just like government.

The work environment of the other companies on the list is described with similar statements.  The biotech company Genentech (No. 6) “has a ‘casual intensity’ vibe, says one staffer. ‘We are a very fun company, but at the end of the day we all know our part in the mission.’” An employee of the HR software maker, Ultimate Software (No. 7), says “The love for one another is felt throughout this organization.” Thanks to “wonderful benefits, supportive management, and an amazing work environment.”  A federal contractor, KPMG (No. 12), has a “constantly challenging environment” in which staff is “empowered to continue learning. There could not be a better place to launch a career.”

Those companies and the others on the best places lists could have model HR policies and practices but that does not explain their selection. Yes, the civil service system is clearly a problem for government.  Nothing is going to improve the work experience until the system is replaced. Government would benefit—as would many employers—from developing an understanding of what makes those companies great places to work.

The employers on those lists can select from larger pools of well qualified applicants, experience lower voluntary turnover, and perform better.  But it’s the softer issues—the leadership, the culture, the communications, the respect and trust, the performance expectations, etc.—that explain what makes these employers different and more successful. It’s a stretch to think government can emulate the work experience of the best places but any changes in that direction would be beneficial, and can be initiated at a nominal cost.

It’s recommended that the Alliance/Partnership initiative be expanded to undertake an assessment of the changes needed to improve the work experience. Employee groups will know where their experience compares unfavorably. The goal should be to transition to culture where employees are challenged and expected to show initiative, supported in developing their capabilities, and recognized for their contribution.

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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