Managers take the fall during downsizing

Managers take the fall during downsizing

OPM's research, however, found that not all agencies are following merit system principles, and therefore are not achieving the desired outcomes. Most agencies, OPM found, ignored the strategic planning aspect of downsizing because of budget pressures and, in the Defense Department's case, base closures.

One out of every three civil servants eliminated during the 1994-1996 federal downsizing effort was a manager, according to a new Office of Personnel Management report.

Of 122,271 positions downsized during the two-year period, 43,841 of those were supervisory positions. Proportionally, supervisors were downsized twice as frequently as non-supervisors, according to the report, which detailed the downsizing efforts of a cross section of federal agencies.

OPM conducted its review of downsizing in two phases from June to October 1997. In addition to collecting data, OPM received employee input and attempted to gauge how well agencies followed merit system principles during downsizing. During Phase I, OPM distributed surveys to 1,170 managers, supervisors and employees to obtain their downsizing views. Phase II included on-site visits to 21 agencies.

When agencies use merit system principles during downsizing efforts, OPM expects the following outcomes:

  • Agencies plan strategically to achieve budget and staff reductions.
  • Strategies are employed to help surplus employees find other jobs.
  • Affected employees are properly and effectively moved into new assignments.
  • Mission accomplishment and customer service are enhanced through improved use of available resources.

"Urgency to meet staffing levels drove most agency downsizing decisions," the report said. "The majority of installations took an across-the-board approach to downsizing with little or no regard for the long-term impact on the ability to carry out the mission considering such factors as core responsibilities and skills balance."

Still, agencies were able to achieve sizable reductions in their workforces without resorting to massive reductions-in-force (RIFs). From 1994-1996, voluntary early retirements (also known as early outs) totaled 57,163 and voluntary separation incentives (also known as buyouts) totaled 99,079. RIFs totaled 26,644.

Agencies are helping surplus employees find alternative employment, but that job is becoming increasingly difficult due to fewer placement opportunities, according to OPM. Employees were not satisfied with agency efforts.

Only 25 percent of employees and 35 percent of managers felt the job placement assistance provided to surplus employees was extensive. Only 21 percent of employees and 24 percent of managers felt that their agency had implemented effective programs to retrain employees for new jobs.

Of the 15 human resources offices visited by OPM, only four indicated that training is a high priority. As a consequence, only 23 percent of managers surveyed said the right person is assigned to the right job.

OPM also found that agencies did not devote adequate attention to ensuring surplus workers a smooth job transition. Most managers and supervisors surveyed said they did not recognize that downsizing "survivors" need any sort of special support or assistance after placement. Only 33 percent of managers and employees indicated that employees assigned to new positions as a result of downsizing were made to feel welcome. A few study sites like NASA and the Naval Warfare Center, however, had official greeters assigned to welcome new employees.

Downsizing has contributed to immediate staff reductions, but has not significantly enhanced customer service or mission accomplishment, OPM found. Only 10 percent of employees indicated that downsizing efforts have produced an organization that is more productive and better equipped to do its job.