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Struggling Agencies Turn to Fortune 500 Leaders for Advice on Boosting Employee Morale

Advisory board members say private-public cooperation helps to erase image of 'dumb, lazy' civil servants.

Agencies struggling with poor morale turned to private-sector business leaders for advice on how to better engage their workforce, during a White House meeting on Friday.

Representatives from the Housing and Urban Development and Education departments attended the President’s Management Advisory Board meeting, looking for answers from current and former leaders of Fortune 500 companies.

Board members and CEOs from companies like Aetna and Pfizer told the agency managers to give their employees a broad look at the mission of the organization. Too often, they said, silos go up that prevent employees from holistically understanding agency-goals and priorities. Increasing the number of town halls -- or in the case of HUD, which has a field network scattered across the country, webcasts -- can help to spread that information and increase “business literacy.” It can also provide an avenue for leadership to respond to concerns of the rank and file, such as those voiced in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

After providing that bird’s eye approach, the industry heads said it is equally important to drill down on specific, actionable items each employee can focus on to contribute to the larger goals.

HUD and Education both ranked among the bottom in employee morale for large agencies. Beth Cobert, the Office of Management and Budget’s deputy director for management, said many agencies could have benefited from picking the brains of the business leaders, but HUD and Education’s hands went up first when presented with the opportunity. She warned that agencies can set any goal they want, but results require a more engaged workforce.

“It will all be very nice and nothing with happen,” Cobert said.

Part of the administration’s effort will be providing distinguished members of the Senior Executive Service with customer service awards. Cobert said agencies will be submitting nominees this summer, and the president will recognize 10 winners in October.

The business leaders also discussed with representatives from the General Services Administration and other agencies the importance of implementing the new category management system. The acquisitions overhaul is slowly being rolled out to ultimately consolidate the process and reduce price disparities for agencies negotiating similar contracts.

Anne Rung, head of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said there are currently 3,300 acquisition offices “that I know of.” She added there is “virtually no transparency” in the current contracting process. To ensure savings, the private-sector advisers all emphasized the need to hold managers accountable for the specific spending in their departments.

Agency leaders at the meeting applauded the suggestions from their private-sector peers, thanking them for their help and requesting further public-private management cooperation in the future. Both sides agreed that many in the private sector perceive federal workers as “dumb, lazy and overpaid,” while civil servants often view corporate leaders as greedy and only focused on the bottom line.

Part of that tension arises from the two sides typically interacting in “adversarial” situations, they said. Meetings such as the President’s Management Advisory Board help bring the industry and government together to work toward a common goal, they added, and to eradicate some of the negative assumptions.  

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