Rx for 21st-Century Government: Nimbler Hiring and Trained Managers

Millennials aren’t exactly flocking to “overly bureaucratic” agencies.

Who wants to become an Internal Revenue Service auditor? When the senator asked for a show of hands at a hearing Wednesday, no one volunteered. Only a couple of people raised their hands when asked whether they would even join the federal workforce.

“I’m the mother of two Millennials,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., told a Wednesday hearing at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on regulatory affairs and federal management. “If we can’t put these people in the job and provide them with job satisfaction, we’re not going to get the government we need to address the concerns of citizens. We won’t get the Millennials if it’s overly bureaucratic,” she added. “We have to figure out how to make the workforce more fun so they feel a kinship.”

Many solutions were bandied about at the hearing exploring “21st-century ideas for the 20th-century civil service,” ranging from accelerating the hiring process, to training managers to deal more directly with poor performers, to linking everyday work to the larger mission.

But the senators also focused on the hurdles officials face when they try to fire misbehaving employees, and witnesses pointed out that fed bashing and sequestration have only made it more difficult to recruit talented people to government service.

“A few bad apples in our federal workforce have made the news,” said subcommittee chairman James Lankford, R-Okla., as he thanked the federal workforce as a whole. “These stories represent the importance of congressional oversight, both as to the incidents themselves, as well as to the management policies that underlie them. But they also tend to cast a shadow over the good work that individuals across the federal government accomplish each day for our nation.”  

Lankford and Heitkamp pointed to the damage to morale caused when high-performing employees at an agency feel derailed because managers won’t take on the slackers. “We want people as managers who can deal with conflict, but don’t get drunk with power.” said Heitkamp.

“Management should be a profession, not an added task for technicians,” said Patricia J. Niehaus, National President of the Federal Managers Association, saying some managers are given only 30 percent of their time for supervising. “We should educate and train supervisors instead of promoting technicians,” she said. She called for a dual career path so that people who excel at technical work can still get a raise without going into management, where they may not be as successful.

Yvonne Jones, director of strategic issues for the Government Accountability Office, said many management failures stem from a breakdown of one or more human capital activities, such as workforce planning or performance management. “Federal agencies will need to change their cultures and create the institutional capacity to become high-performing organizations,” she said. “This includes recruiting and retaining employees able to create, sustain, and thrive in organizations that are flatter, results-oriented, and externally focused, and that collaborate with other government entities as well as with the private and nonprofit sectors to achieve desired outcomes.”

Dan Blair, president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration, urged officials to focus on hiring. “Any private sector entity operating with a nearly 40-year-old personnel system and a nearly 70-year-old pay system would likely be out of business today,” he said. “Bringing high-quality new hires on board in a realistic timeframe requires custom position descriptions, well-crafted vacancy announcements, and agency leadership attention.”

Recruiting Millennials, Blair said, depends on having “meaningful work, which is what distinguishes government from the private sector.” To improve engagement, high performers need to be recognized and given a clear course for advancement in organizations that hold senior leaders accountable, he said.

J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, offered a different prescription: “Get rid of sequestration,” the automatic spending cuts that have severely restricted training, travel and some agency operations. Cox reiterated the union’s agenda of preserving benefits, curbing outsourcing, matching the pay of comparable jobs in the private sector and allowing “managers to learn from front-line workers.” A big problem for supervisors, he added, citing his own experience as a VA nurse, is there are often not enough people and those around are not trained to do the work.

Probationary periods for new hires vary by agency, but witnesses said they are often too short. At the Federal Aviation Administration, Niehaus said, supervisors sometimes don’t even meet new hires until they’ve been there 10 or 11 months because they are in training. “The year should start after they are trained,” she said.

While it’s not impossible to fire employees, affording employees due process is time-consuming for managers, the panelists said.

“Often the managers want to put it off,” said Cox. “Or send the employee to another team,” Heitkamp added.

The GAO witness said it is more cost-effective to “work with employees who have a performance problem so they don’t have to be dismissed,” given the government’s investment in training.

Lankford promised that his panel will use the hearing results to craft reforms, either through legislation or via letters to the administration.

(Image via Saklakova/