Managers should involve employees in decision making, report says

Making sure employees can see how their jobs relate to an agency's overall mission is an important part of successful human resources management, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office. GAO studied the efforts of five agencies to improve human resources management and found that directly involving employees in performance planning and important agency decisions empowered the workforce. Providing regular training to employees, working with unions on personnel changes and making human resources a visibly high priority also had a positive impact on federal employees, according to the report, "Human Capital: Practices That Empowered and Involved Employees" (GAO-01-1070). GAO's study included the Federal Aviation Administration, the Office of Personnel Management, the Veterans Benefits Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The government is still struggling to effectively integrate human resources planning with strategic objectives, but some agencies have found ways-despite initial resistance from managers and employees-to engage and empower the workforce, according to GAO. "Managers and employees adapted to the changes at their agencies over time, particularly once they perceived benefits, such as improved communication, from the new practices," the report said. Involving employees in performance planning helped them understand how daily activities contributed to the agency's overall results, GAO said. For example, one team of employees at the IRS helped the agency develop its strategic plan using performance information, while the FAA's Logistics Center posted performance data in charts and graphs so employees could track the center's progress toward meeting the agency's goals. Giving employees decision-making authority also improved morale and streamlined government processes, GAO said. At FEMA, public assistance coordinators were able to determine eligibility for and approve up to $100,000 in public financial assistance. By delegating this task to front-line employees, FEMA managers avoided additional, time-consuming reviews of applications. Cross-training employees not only improved their skills, but also reduced overall work for agencies, the report said. OPM gave its retirement team on-the-job cross-training in processing retirement claims under both the Civil Service Retirement System and the Federal Employees' Retirement System, reducing one office's backlog of FERS cases. Ventris Gibson, the deputy assistant secretary for human resources management at the Veterans Affairs Department, said she agreed "100 percent" that agencies are ultimately responsible for making workforce planning a priority and ensuring that employees see the connection between their jobs and the agency's mission. "The Veterans Affairs Department and the Secretary [Anthony Principi] are ultimately held accountable for our mission, and we have to make sure we have the right complement of human capital to accomplish that mission," Gibson said. Gibson said VA is asking managers what flexibilities they need to attract talented employees and is currently working with OPM and the Office of Management and Budget on a legislative package that would exempt the agency from certain parts of Title V, the law that governs the federal personnel structure. The agency is also focused on recruiting and retaining employees, Gibson said. "VA has a good and clearly defined mission--to serve the nation's veterans--and we plan to capitalize on that in our recruiting and marketing." VA also wants to keep its current managers happy with their work environment. "We just announced a Senior Executive Service candidate development program in the department to foster and ensure that we have leaders in place," Gibson said. The Health and Human Services Department is making similar efforts to improve workforce planning and recruitment and retention, according to Evelyn White, the principal deputy to the HHS' assistant secretary for administration and management. "We've used our workforce planning data as a foundation for thinking and planning more strategically in recruiting internally and externally," White said. White also said the department is committed to linking individual management priorities with HHS' overall goals. HHS is creating performance management plans for senior managers that link those two processes, she said. Both Gibson and White said improving human resources management is a top priority at their agencies. "Workforce planning is one of six priority issues we regularly brief the Secretary on," Gibson said. "It is high on the radar screen."