Reform Should Focus on Workforce Alignment, Not On Staffing Cuts

While reductions may be an outcome, they shouldn’t be the sole focus.

Federal employees are the primary drivers for how government work gets done, decisions get made, and values are upheld. Maintaining a high performing workforce with the right skills and of the right size to execute the mission is critical. Proponents of smaller government shouldn’t assume reductions will solve government’s problems. What is necessary is workforce realignment.

Last April, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney directed agency leaders to take a hard look at the government workforce with a focus on “preparing a long-term plan to reduce the size of the federal workforce.” While reduction may end up being a natural outcome of reform, it is not the way to focus on this issue.

First Things First

Starting the reform initiative with a narrow focus on reducing the workforce is absolutely the wrong way to achieve efficiency and effectiveness. Prior to making any workforce plans or changes, decisions must first be made on programmatic changes based on approved reform plans and other initiatives. This should be the foundation for workforce changes (or other resource changes) over time. The key is to align the workforce with new priorities, not simply reduce the workforce.

The size and skills of the workforce must be determined based on changes to programs, processes, technology, workload and budget. Any valid workforce planning action cannot be successfully completed until leaders know what the reform plan is. And they should have a complete and accurate profile of the existing workforce. It’s a waste of time and money to conduct “to-be” planning until leaders know what actions the agency will actually take toward reform. And it is critical for efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability to maintain the right number of highly skilled staff for the programs that will be reformed.

Reductions may be necessary, but do it the right way. While it is appropriate to use attrition and separation incentives to reach the desired end state for reductions, using them alone could result in a workforce with the wrong skills or experience for the mission. It also cedes control of the outcome to employees instead of the organization. Leaders must be wise and use multiple tools to ensure a fully functional workforce that is aligned with the reformed organization, desired culture, and workload. Those tools include:

  • Performing skills gap analysis
  • Retraining and reassigning personnel
  • Making performance-based promotions, demotions and terminations
  • Hiring for newly-required skills
  • Eliminating positions or retraining personnel with skills no longer needed
  • Helping people transition to other agencies
  • Offering early retirements
  • Conducting succession planning
  • Managing attrition
  • Conducting reductions in force

Preparing for Reform

The workforce is an asset. It should be treated as one to optimize performance. To effectively prepare employees for the reform initiative, each agency should complete three major steps.

1. Analysis and preparation. Complete an “as-is” workforce profile, obtain reform approvals, identify FY19 budget priorities, prepare shared services plans, address cross-agency program changes, include regulatory changes and reductions in reporting. Review labor market opportunities and limitations, and benchmark as appropriate.

2. Develop a workforce alignment model. Develop a “to-be” workforce plan. Identify functional responsibilities and workload, use of technology and process reengineering; develop an organizational structure, including span of control; identify physical resource requirements (staffing levels, skills, skill levels); plan against the budget; identify contractor requirements; identify timelines; work through barriers; and then determine the best strategy for rightsizing. Make sure you balance the back-office support functions with line staff requirements.

3. Execute the plan. Use your tools (see above) to manage risk or unintended events, report results, and make adjustments as needed. Redesign jobs, develop the appropriate performance management tools, train staff, include workload, performance and outcome metrics. Manage change, infuse the culture with performance and accountability. Make sure the workforce is respected throughout this process.

There is much more needed to strengthen the workforce, including comprehensive civil service reform, but these are the basics for the reform initiative. Treat this as an alignment initiative rather than a reduction exercise and the government will be more efficient, effective, and accountable.

Steve Goodrich is the CEO of the Center for Organizational Excellence and the author of Transforming Government from Congress to the Cubicle. He can be reached at