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New Day at EPA

Changes at the agency's procurement shop have improved morale and customer service.

During the 1990s, new rules governing the way government agencies buy goods and services shook some fundamental truths about procurement culture. Traditionally, an agency's procurement shop had been its only agent when it needed to buy anything. The new rules allowed agency leaders to turn to other agencies if they weren't satisfied with the acquisition service they were getting.

Before the new rules, procurement shops like the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Acquisition Management had an everything-comes-through-us attitude that wasn't always conducive to good customer service. To be frank, says Judy S. Davis, EPA procurement chief, it created a system of "rice bowls, barriers and inefficiency" that prompted customers to revolt and employee morale to nose dive.

In search of a solution, Davis hired G. Ronald Gilbert, a consultant with Management Education and Development Inc. of Boca Raton, Fla., in 1999 to conduct surveys of morale at the EPA office. The results were substandard. When workers were asked whether the office was well-organized, had policies supportive of their development, was efficient, inspired loyalty and fostered mentoring, their answers put them below the government average. At the same time, the new rules that allowed agencies to shop for procurement services were about to make it difficult for such an office to survive. EPA was in danger of losing some of its $1.3 billion in contracting business, which helped it procure everything from services related to environmental cleanups to computers.

Davis, now 52, arrived at EPA from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As the deputy director of the contracting office (she was later appointed director), she took the lead on an initiative to rebuild the shop from the ground up. Her idea, which prompted an improvement in customer attitudes about EPA, involved two simple steps: Give the staff more power, and have the management team spend more time devising new services for customers.

"We give employees the autonomy to make decisions, and we hold them accountable," says Davis. By freeing managers from the burden of clearing everything through multiple layers of bureaucracy, contracts are approved much faster. Regular customer surveys provide an incentive to boost the quality of services. Davis also encourages employees to take rotational assignments in other parts of the agency to get a better feel for customer needs. "Walking a mile in the customers' shoes makes a big difference," she says.

In the past, the office had spread what little money it had for annual performance awards among most of the staff. Davis decided to focus the awards on excellence. A "Mission Made Possible" award is given to an employee who finds a way to connect a contracting service to the agency's environmental protection mission. The "Light Bulb" goes to the one whose idea improved office business practices. A "Wings" award is given to a mentor; and a "Giraffe" goes to an employee "who sticks his or her neck out" to take worthwhile risks.

For many years, it was difficult for EPA contracting employees to feel connected to the agency's broader mission, Davis says. But by empowering her staff, Davis has focused on upending that problem. Among the results are a new governmentwide contract that will allow any agency to work with small businesses to recycle old computers. Another innovative contract allows EPA employees to purchase office supplies from environmentally friendly companies.

"Four or five years ago, we were just trying to keep our nose above water in keeping up with agency requests," says Davis. "That kind of creative thinking wasn't part of our culture."

And the results show. In the most recent survey, EPA employees indicated that on every measure of employee morale, they top government averages.