Great Expectations

T

wo years into the Bush administration, federal managers are regaining some of the power they lost during the Clinton years. The Clinton administration cut their numbers by 40,000 and ordered agencies to create labor-management partnerships to give unions a stronger voice in day-to-day operations. Vice President Al Gore and his reinventing government team rarely missed an opportunity to blame managers for creating the silly rules that get in the way of empowered employees. The administration forced the demotion of thousands of managers to meet its arbitrary goal of doubling the "span of control" between supervisors and subordinates. Even the word "manager" fell out of favor. Far better to be called a team leader, coach or mentor.

The Bush administration is not about to create thousands of new management jobs, but there is no talk of cuts, either.. Bush abolished the labor-management partnerships created under Clinton. And the administration is busily designing a personnel system for the new Homeland Security Department that would give managers sweeping authority to reward and discipline employees. Bush banned collective bargaining among the 70,000 baggage and passenger screeners at the Transportation Security Administration and abolished the union representing 1,000 employees at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. If this administration knows the phrase "employee empowerment," it's not using it.

The Bush administration is not the only advocate of greater managerial freedom. Career executives have been fighting employee empowerment, too. During the bitter debate over union rights for the Homeland Security Department, the Senior Executives Association actually backed the administration's stance against compromise.

Ordinarily, the SEA would be expected to stand with the front line. After all, the vast majority of its members started their careers at the bottom, and some were even union members. But during the Homeland Security debate, the SEA was outraged by the notion that managers might lose even more authority than they already had in the last decade. As SEA President Carol Bonosaro wrote in opposition to one of several compromises proposed, bargaining rights would "constitute a windfall to the unions and make management of the workforce much more difficult than it currently is for agencies who join the department."

The most notable effort to strengthen managerial authority may be the least noticed: The administration will create a $500 million "performance fund" in the next year. Although the fund amounts to only a half percent of the government's payroll, it gives managers a new tool to reward star performers. As federal personnel director Kay Coles James said, "When we have federal employees talking about my pay increase rather than the pay increase, then I think we will have succeeded."

The question is whether managers can handle their new responsibilities. After all, it was managers, not employees or union members, who allowed the annual pay-for-performance process to become a hyper-inflated joke. Just look at the 2001 numbers. Of the 700,000 federal employees rated under the government's two-point, pass-fail system, just 0.06 percent failed. Of the other 800,000 employees who were rated under the traditional five-point, unacceptable-to-outstanding system, just 0.6 percent were rated minimally successful or unacceptable. That means 43 percent were rated "outstanding," 28 percent as "exceeds fully successful," and 19 percent as "fully successful." And who got the highest ratings under the system? Why, managers, of course.

Managers have plenty of explanations for overgrading. Federal law prohibits the use of any grading curve or quota in the annual performance process. That means managers must be ready to defend anything less than an "outstanding" rating. Managers are right to fear the grievance process, which some employees use to fight even the hint of disciplinary action. The process puts the burden of proof on managers, and can last up to 40 months, giving every advantage to the appellant and most of the grief to the manager.

Yet, much as one can sympathize with beleaguered managers, the overgrading points to the need for more courage and training in the management corps. Too many managers fail to confront the poor performers in their midst, while too few are trained to use the type of discretion the administration is promoting. Having grown up in the wink-and-nod appraisal system, many managers simply do not know how to do it differently.

But absent further training on how to manage and motivate the federal workforce, a deeper split between managers and their employees may be inevitable. Having been under siege for so long, some managers may be hungry for a comeback, while others simply do not know how to get the best from their workforce. That is why the Bush administration should move quickly to rebuild the executive training programs that have fared so poorly in budget battles. Managers need more than the tools of effective management. They also need to know how to use them.


Paul C. Light is director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Service and a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service.


NEXT STORY: A Come-From-Behind Victory

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