So Many Bosses, But Who’s Doing the Real Work?

Smart staffing can boost efficiency and morale in a tight budget landscape.

Many supervisors today were promoted or hired into their managerial positions after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, so they have only known a world of government expansion and increased staffing allocations -- especially for national security and law enforcement agencies. Before sequestration, some agencies rushed to fill jobs with as many seasoned employees as possible, creating more supervisory and senior staff positions than were necessary or advisable.

During this boom period, organizations often established high-graded expert and coordinator positions, at the expense of mission-critical jobs that represent the primary work of the agency. Many agencies hired more program analysts and program coordinators than food inspectors, air traffic controllers or park rangers; and established additional supervisory layers between policymakers and the employees actually doing the work.   

Look at any federal agency’s organizational chart and you are likely to find as many staff offices and positions that report to the agency chief as there are organizational units that perform the core work. Often, it is difficult to figure out the chain of command and how authority flows through the organization. Many organizations are top-heavy with program analysts and special assistants at the top of the General Schedule, but don’t have enough workers in training or developmental positions in the mid-grade GS levels that serve as the pipeline for future staff in mission-critical occupations.   

Too many bosses and not enough workers. This is the result of poor position management.       

Some seasoned managers who are familiar with the government’s continual growth-and-contraction cycle just shrug and figure they have to tighten their belts for a while. But many new managers are seriously concerned about the low morale and increased attrition brought on by sequestration and multiyear salary freezes. They recognize that inadequate human resources management contributes to employees’ lack of confidence in senior leadership and impedes the accomplishment of agency missions.   

If any of this sounds familiar, your agency might need to embrace the simple principles of good position management, which has served federal managers well in previous periods of tight budgets and reduced staffing. 

Position management is defined by Office of Personnel Management guidelines as “designing position structures which blend the skills and assignments of employees with the goal of successfully carrying out the organization’s mission or program . . . a logical balance between employees needed to carry out the major functions of the organization and those needed to provide adequate support; between professional employees and technicians; between fully trained employees and trainees; and between supervisors and subordinates.” Basically, it is the seemingly antiquated notion of ensuring that the organization is as streamlined as it can be to accomplish the assigned work.  

Here are some fundamental principles about how to structure an organization:

  • Take on work only when there is clear organizational authority and responsibility to perform that work.
  • Concentrate organizational resources on direct positions, rather than administrative staff and support positions.
  • Consider organizational context when establishing positions: How does a given position relate to other similar ones in the organization?
  • Ensure a reasonable and supportable grade structure -- one that balances mission needs, economy and efficiency of operations, sound use of skill and knowledge, and recruitment and retention of talent.
  • Strive for a minimal supervisory structure.
  • Avoid excessive layering.
  • Establish sensible spans of supervisory control.
  • Distribute work, especially the highest-level tasks, logically among available positions.
  • Distribute work so there is variety and opportunity to develop expertise.
  • Establish a position structure that provides career paths for most employees.
  • Avoid too many one-of-a-kind, dead-end positions.

The words “reasonable,” “sensible” and “logical” represent key themes that were often overlooked during government’s latest growth cycle. As agencies return to an era of doing more with less, applying the principles of good position management can be a useful tool for managers, especially when incorporated into an agency’s overall strategic approach to managing with fewer resources. 

Henry Romero is a senior advisor with Federal Management Partners Inc. His 32-year federal career in human resources included positions at the Defense and Justice departments as well as the Office of Personnel Management.