Rogue Workers & Change Agents

By encouraging employees who challenge the status quo, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has become an unlikely hotbed of management reform.


hyllis York describes the "reinvention advocates," a self-designated group of change agents at the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), as "rogue workers." But it's not a term of derision. "We need them," says York, APHIS's director of management and budget. "We have a tolerance for eccentrics."

In most agencies, having workers circulating through the agency and stirring things up outside their formal roles would make the higher-ups uncomfortable. At APHIS, the agency head, Lonnie King, allocated $50,000 to the advocates group to be used in support of innovative projects. The members of the group, says King, "are the kind of people private business would like to have. Supporting them helps keep people in the organization active, energized and empowered."

While APHIS is relatively small-it has only 6,000 of USDA's 108,000 employees-the agency has garnered more than its share of attention in the world of reinventing government because of its aggressive approach to change. It is home to 8 of USDA's 14 "reinvention laboratories" (as designated by the National Performance Review), 2 of which have received Hammer Awards from Vice President Al Gore.

"APHIS presents an interesting dilemma for us," says Mitchell Geasler, coordinator of reinvention activities throughout USDA. "Every time we have an award, they end up winning it."

Hotbed of Reform

As at most agencies, multiple projects are under way at APHIS on issues such as performance measurement, downsizing, customer service and partnerships with unions. While all these formal activities are handled competently, what makes APHIS distinctive are the activities initiated by employees such as the reinvention advocates. For example, two of the advocates, Lance Cope and Denise Barnes, started an effort to reengineer the process of approving cooperative agreements with other countries for programs such as screwworm eradication. Such agreements, which once took three years to complete, now take an average of only 42 days. "The informal organization is where things happen," King says. "If we don't do something there, things won't change."

"There is self-selection by individuals about what they think is important to improve the agency," says Richard Kelly, head of the agency's regulatory analysis unit, one of the Hammer Award winners. "Everybody is on at least three to four teams. There are at least four teams planning the future of APHIS. There is more than just one clearinghouse for reinvention, innovation and visioning. Multiple processes are under way. There is a lack of effort to channel and control visionary activities, which is why we are a hotbed. If you had to register an idea and put it on the agenda, you wouldn't be seeing as much."

On the surface, APHIS seems an unlikely place to find so much activity. It is a federation of units with highly diverse missions. Its two old-line units, Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ) and Veterinary Services (VS) have roots deep in the agricultural sector. They share, says York, "a wonderful mission-keep pests away from our shore." VS chief Don Luchsinger describes his unit as "a hands-on service delivery organization. We have direct contact with thousands of people every day. We take pride in service delivery."

But two other APHIS units have largely contradictory missions: The Animal Damage Control unit traps and removes wildlife that poses threats to property, such as coyotes and beavers, while the Regulatory Enforcement and Animal Care unit protects animals against inhumane treatment. The Biotechnology, Biologics and Environmental Protection (BBEP) division has among its responsibilities the licensing of genetically engineered agricultural products.

Despite its variety of missions, APHIS has an "action orientation," King says. "Part of our culture is to respond quickly to emergencies. People pride themselves on it and are rewarded for it."

Others say King himself is the source of much of the activity. A veterinarian by training, King has spent most of his career in the agency and is a strong proponent of change. "People have made careers out of saying 'This will pass, things will be OK,' " he says. "They've been right a lot of the time. This is different. This is the most difficult time in the history of the organization. The status quo is not acceptable."

"We looked at the environment and realized things needed to change," says Don Husnik, head of PPQ. "We got a jump on it. You can be the driver, the passenger or road kill. We want to be the driver."

The Purple Dungeon

Alfred S. Elder, PPQ's associate deputy administrator, attributes the agency's aptitude for change in part to its organization development (OD) unit. The OD staff provides internal consulting services using behavioral science principles in activities such as team building, leadership transition, and organizational change planning and facilitation. "A few years ago, we committed to develop an OD staff to deal with stuff that was overwhelming federal agencies," says Elder. "I attribute it to having the resources available to attack these situations."

One such situation was within PPQ. Several years ago, PPQ employees at Miami International Airport expressed a desire to organize into self-directed teams. Miami is one of the least desirable work sites within APHIS, because of the volume of traffic from outside the United States that moves through the airport. On a baggage floor known as the "purple dungeon," employees examine the belongings of up to 25,000 passengers per day, searching for plants that present a threat of disease or infection to American crops. "Nobody wanted that assignment," says Elder. "We wanted to test something to make the workplace more desirable."

Although the teaming arrangement seemed to work at first, after a while enthusiasm trailed off and the workers became frustrated. Many staffers felt that while agency leaders were paying lip service to the concept of employee empowerment, neither the workers nor the supervisors had the appropriate skills to work as a team.

Instead of backing off from the teaming concept, however, APHIS officials committed additional resources to make it work. "We learned what's necessary to support self-directed teams in regard to training," says Elder. OD specialists have been hired for each of PPQ's four regions. "Their task," says Elder, "is to determine where groups are ready for teams: Who's ready, where are they best suited, where to adopt operations to teams."

With the additional positions, the OD unit has almost tripled in size in recent years. The unit now includes 11 specialists. It is, says King, the only APHIS unit that is increasing in size. "When resources go down, most people cut out units like OD and training," he says. "My idea is the opposite: Don't shortchange the capacity and the ability of people to change and improve."

King's views are widely shared in the agency. John Payne, acting director of BBEP, says that despite reduced budgets, operations like OD "are the kinds of functions we protect. They are essential for organizational flexibility. We are calling on them more and more."

Several years ago, APHIS managers rated all of the agency's support services on the degree to which they added value to their operations. The OD unit was rated one of the highest. "OD is culturally congruent with the agency," says Dan Stone, head of the OD unit. People experienced OD as helping them to solve real problems. When this kind of support is available, people are willing to bite more off. There is a more profound level of change."


One of the organizational development unit's tasks recently was to coordinate the agencywide planning process, known as "future search." Ordinarily, says Stone, strategic planning efforts take a year and "the world is different by the time you're done." APHIS's future search process, by contrast, took only four days. Its purpose, says Stone, was to set a vision and a strategy for the organization. "We tried to include all relevant perspectives, different levels, functions, external stakeholders."

About 100 people from both within and outside the agency attended the conference at which the new vision for the agency was developed. A second conference focused on specific strategies for achieving the vision.

The future search process helped provide a context for APHIS's various change initiatives. King calls it connecting the dots. The key element that emerged from the process is the concept of "One APHIS," an attempt to get APHIS's diverse units thinking of themselves as a single agency. King, says Stone, "has tried to bring synergy out of the belief that the different units have things in common even though they have different cultures and professions."

Under the new concept, "Organizational lines will become more fuzzy, less important," says Don Luchsinger of Veterinary Services. "It will make definite changes in the way we do business, particularly at the support level. Many of the functions of PPQ and VS are similar: decontamination, collecting specimens, talking to owners. The issue of whether they are plant or animal is not that different."

Cindy Smith, assistant to the deputy commissioner for animal damage control, says "One APHIS" will allow the agency to draw from different programs and different disciplines to solve problems. For example, wildlife biologists, veterinarians and biotechnologists have already worked together to stop the spread of rabies in Texas by vaccinating coyotes in the wild with a genetically engineered rabies vaccine.

Some employees have found the pace of change overwhelming. "They didn't want to face a new initiative," King says. "The purpose of the future search process was to say, "What you're doing does make a difference. Things you did last year are aligned to this strategy. Here's how they fit.' "

Still, not all employees have bought into the process. One who asked not to be identified says, "The challenge is connecting it to the front-line workers. The conferees were a small percentage of the larger group. It is hard for them to communicate back to their offices. People are asking, 'Is there too much planning to plan?' " Another employee, who also asked not to be identified, says, "There are a lot of resources being put into visioning but not a whole lot coming out of it."

Creative Tension

The fact that some employees are questioning the direction APHIS is going may, paradoxically, be one reason for its success in reinventing itself. The agency is characterized by a certain amount of "creative tension," says Chris Zakarka, an employee in the agency's information technology unit. "It's tight all the time. It never sags."

Old-line turf battles are a source of tension. One point of conflict has been the agency's Field Servicing Office (FSO) in Minneapolis. The 160-person office handles purchasing, office space procurement, personnel and other administrative matters for the agency's extensive field organization. Now in the eighth year of a quality management program, the field servicing office has organized itself into self-directed teams, improved productivity and dramatically enhanced service to its customers. It is able to provide a 24-hour turnaround on purchase orders, an almost unheard of standard in the federal government. The office recently received a Hammer Award for its outstanding performance.

Nevertheless, there has long been tension between the regional offices of the program units and the Field Servicing Office. PPQ and VS have argued that some of office's functions and resources should be devolved to the regional offices. "There is no reason to have things go through Minneapolis to be transmitted elsewhere to be executed," says PPQ's Elder.

A study of the field structure by an APHIS team last August provided a new opportunity for FSO's detractors to challenge the office's role. Along with the consolidation of regional offices throughout APHIS from 14 to 2, an option was presented to devolve FSO's functions to the two regional hubs. The regional offices, the argument went, are in closer touch with the state offices that are FSO's main customers. PPQ's Husnik, while conceding that a few functions like user-fee collection are better performed centrally, argues that "hiring, purchasing, space procurement and personnel should be closer to the actual location where they are needed. They can be more effective and have a greater identification with the mission. They get a sense of urgency."

Last fall, FSO officials made the case for keeping the functions in Minneapolis, pointing to efforts employees there have made to improve service. In the end, the office was saved by its customers elsewhere in USDA. The Minneapolis FSO has also handled administrative matters for the Agricultural Marketing Service and the Grain Inspection, Stockyards and Packers Administration. When FSO was threatened, both of those organizations wrote King expressing support for the office. "Those agencies represent 8,000 more people," says King. "They said 'We really like the service we're getting.' That factor weighed heavily."

Virtual Organization

Some in the agency question whether these turf battles are constructive. But they are clearly a consequence of all the change and contribute to a sense of dynamism that pervades the agency. King himself is constantly pushing, nudging and prodding the agency forward, testing the latest organizational concepts. One example is APHIS's effort to consolidate all the agency's information resources management functions into a "virtual organization."

The initiative involves merging all 250 IRM employees throughout the agency's 11 units into a single organization. The objectives, consistent with "One APHIS," are to make the various information systems compatible and to develop a common pool of expertise that can be shared throughout the agency.

However, instead of moving the employees to a centralized location, APHIS officials decided to leave them physically and budgetarily where they were before the initiative began. So they are funded by one unit and receive direction from another.

As might be expected, APHIS officials ran into some snags in implementing the new concept. Tension developed between those charged with implementing the virtual organization and Veterinary Services, which had one of the more sophisticated IRM operations. The VS attitude, says one top official, was "Wait a minute, we're way ahead, you're not going to pull us back." Partly as a consequence, the IRM "virtual organization" was made a reinvention lab and given a one-year trial period. "If it doesn't work, we will throw it out and do better and design something else," says King. "But I'm convinced it will work."

Meanwhile, for many IRM specialists, previously isolated in small units, the consolidation has provided opportunities to gain new skills and to expand career horizons.

Transferring resources across program lines, as with the virtual IRM organization, is often a source of conflict in organizations. But at APHIS, the process for allocating resources to staff units is remarkably amicable. Says BBEP's Payne, "We have gone from a funding mechanism for support groups made through top-down decisions to a shared model with near consensus funding for support groups."

Now at APHIS, "there is a marketplace for support functions," says Payne. For example, he notes, when the agency's training unit looked to reallocate scarce funds, "they talked to everybody: 'Did we get it right? Did we reduce funding enough? Did we focus resources on the right thing?' "

Although most of APHIS's support units are shrinking, directors of these units don't seem to object. "We need to be smaller," concedes Bill Wallace, head of planning and program development at APHIS. "The agency budget will at best decline in real dollars. We are working on a 25 percent cut right now. There will be a movement of resources from headquarters to the field."

Less progress has been made on shifting resources between APHIS programs. BBEP may force the agency to face the issue. "The biotechnology program is on a logarithmic curve," says Payne. "We have gone from authorizing five field trials of biotech organisms in 1987 to 3,500 today. The curve will continue. But the number of people peaked in 1992 and is on the way down. The real budget is decreasing 15 percent per year. We are increasing efficiency, but at some point the ability to find additional efficiencies crosses the reality line. The agency realizes this, but they haven't come to grips with shifting resources across program lines."

Top APHIS officials haven't confronted the problem yet because it raises difficult and messy issues of turf. Also, Payne notes, "you don't get breakthroughs until you are ready for breakthroughs." Activity on all the other fronts may allow a breakthrough on this one. The vision process, "One APHIS," and the virtual IRM organization have all helped reduce unit rivalries.

"Our culture is to work out problems," says Husnik. "It's part of the learning process. The idea of 'One APHIS' is that we are all in it together."

Shifting resources across program lines will be a big challenge for the agency and for King himself. While King promotes change he also "addresses the concerns of the old guard," according to one employee, including the senior leadership in PPQ and VS in particular. Whether King is willing to take on the old guard in the cause of "One APHIS" will be an indicator of whether the change philosophy he espouses has permeated the organization and whether King himself is ready to move the reinvention process to the next level.

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