Well-Managed Agencies Turn Tough Times Into Opportunities

Lessons on how to succeed amid budget cuts and attacks on the federal workforce.

My family owned a 1984 Chevrolet Astro van when I was growing up. It was a gray, rambling tank that you wouldn’t dream of trying to parallel park. When the back fender showed signs of strain, my dad used duct tape to hold it together. It worked for a while, until one day it didn’t. The duct tape was, quite literally, a Band-Aid.

Sometimes the government reminds me of that car: An awkward, inefficient piece of machinery taped together, making do with short-term fixes when long-term solutions are needed. But the government has something our poor old van never had: A workforce of 2 million people trying to make it run better every day. 

That’s not easy, especially now. Automatic budget cuts, agency furloughs, a third year of a civilian federal pay freeze—the government’s list of challenges and employee morale busters is lengthy. “This is an extremely, quite unprecedented period in the life of any federal leader,” says Robert Tobias, director of key executive leadership programs at American University’s School of Public Affairs. “There have been periods in the past where feds have been under attack, where pay hasn’t increased, and there have been periods of time when there have been significant budget cuts. But this time all three are present. It’s like the perfect storm.”

Employee satisfaction with both pay and performance management dipped in 2012, according to the Office of Personnel Management’s annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Among the disheartening statistics: Less than 22 percent of more than 687,000 respondents said pay raises at their agencies depended on how well employees did their jobs, and just 30 percent said performance is recognized in a meaningful way and promotions are merit-based. And yet, the survey also showed that a whopping 80 percent of federal employees like the work they do, and more than 75 percent of respondents said their agencies were successful at accomplishing their missions.

So the government is doing something right, or more accurately, certain agencies are. NASA, in particular, stands out for its consistently strong management and employee satisfaction ratings. NASA has “done a fantastic job” of linking the organization’s strategy to its mission goals and making sure employees understand how their work fits into the overall picture, says Kris van Riper, a managing director at Corporate Executive Board, a best practices advisory company. An agency’s commitment to engaging employees in the mission, more so than bonuses and other financial incentives, is what motivates most workers, van Riper says.

The best-managed agencies prize clear communication and transparency, use technology to further their missions and connect the workforce, and develop a solid set of performance metrics to gauge what’s working and what isn’t. Another sign of a well-run organization? Oversight, says van Riper. 

In the May/June issue of Government Executive, Kellie Lunney explores how agencies are overcoming challenging times. Read the full story here. 

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