Remaking Government as a Great Place to Work
For reasons now buried in history, the Office of Personnel Management has never provided leadership in analyzing or tackling workforce problems.
All the evidence leads to the same conclusion—government needs to become a better place to work. The reports have been consistent for years: vacancies are high, the workforce is aging, new hire turnover is high, morale has declined. Now there are reports agencies have been gutted.
For reasons now buried in history, the Office of Personnel Management has never provided leadership in analyzing or tackling workforce problems. OPM’s role is unfortunately delimited by the civil service system. It’s the difference between administering rules and managing talent. Now the prospects for improving performance hinge on making government an attractive place to work.
First, the facts need to be documented. Basic agency-level workforce planning is badly needed. Plans are needed to improve recruiting, to ensure work groups have essential skills, to improve employee engagement. Individuals with a solid understanding of what’s needed need a seat at the table for management meetings. That’s essential for rebuilding the workforce.
People management issues are a common thread in the Government Accountability Office’s list of “high risk” programs. To select three programs where people concerns are obviously core: “DOD Approach to Business Transformation,” “Improving the Management of IT Acquisitions and Operations,” and “Managing Risks and Improving VA Health Care.” A recently added problem, “Ensuring the Cybersecurity of the Nation,” is all about adding essential talent. The most obvious, “Strategic Human Capital Management,” has been on the list for almost two decades.
No Time to Wait
The workforce strategy has been limited to backfill. Workers retire and are replaced. That may be overly monitory but to borrow from the title of a National Academy of Public Administration report, there really is no time to wait. Government needs a new workforce strategy and tomorrow is not too soon.
The most damning evidence is that too many recent hires—the future of government—are resigning within months. They have to be reluctant to acknowledge they made a mistake. All the hours agencies invested in bringing them on board are lost. Its imperative agencies commit to making needed changes.
That’s happening at a time when, according to a 2018 study reported in The Hill, “Fewer graduates are choosing government jobs.” The study found students “pursuing master’s degrees in public policy are no longer pursuing government jobs—especially at the federal level.” What they learned apparently altered their career plans.
Gallup’s research shows young workers want to change the world and “apply the same mindset of change to the workplace.” They want “to be free of old workplace policies and performance management standards, and they expect leaders and managers to adapt accordingly.” (Italics added.) Government, of course, continues to resist needed change.
Agencies need to understand how their recruiting and hiring practices are perceived by job seekers. They also need to understand the problems experienced by new hires. The simplest and most productive approach would be to invite young employees to take part in focus groups to discuss the pros and cons of their federal work experience. The groups should meet regularly to review progress. Agencies should have similar discussions in exit interviews when young employees resign. The feedback from those conversations needs to be considered in management meetings at the highest levels.
The solution is obvious: If federal employers hope to compete for talent, then they need to improve government’s brand, eliminate the barriers to getting the jobs, and enrich the work experience of new hires. The civil service system and top-down management unfortunately preclude local initiatives. Employees know what needs to change.
The Great Places to Work Strategy
One place that could provide government with some answers is the Great Places to Work Institute. It’s been addressing workforce problems since 1981. Today, the institute operates in 50 countries; its reports reveal why some companies are great places to work.
Government could use a similar source to highlight the positive aspects of working in government. It's needed to send a message to new workers and potential recruits.
The institute’s research strongly supports relying on employee resource groups to play a role in defining problems and developing solutions. They claim ERGs “are found in 90% of Fortune 500 companies.” Great Place research has learned that companies that solicit employee ideas—a culture of “innovation by all”—operate with greater agility, realize greater speed in implementation, and have significantly better financial results.
The groups are consistent with the role of the employee advisory council that played a role in the Government Accountability Office’s reform initiative. Employee groups played a similar role in the planning and transition years ago at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
Significantly, the role of employee groups is consistent with the co-determination practice that has contributed to the success of the German economy and is also embedded in public agencies.
Employees understand local workplace problems better than the experts. They take pride in solving problems and improving performance. At least as important is their ownership and commitment to solving problems. Too often, when changes are mandated by leaders or outsiders, it triggers resistance.
With large, geographically dispersed work groups, it makes sense to invite feedback from multiple local groups. They can learn from each other. The meetings of the Federal Salary Council have highlighted the different local factors that affect recruiting and staffing.
Both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Washington-based Business Roundtable were quick to congratulate President elect Biden in the days after the election. The Roundtable statement reads:
“In the days ahead, it is critical that we move forward together to strengthen our country … Our country faces great challenges in the months ahead to defeat the pandemic and rebuild our economy. We will meet them only by working together.”
One way the members of the Roundtable could help address the workforce concerns is by providing insight on their best practices for managing large, diverse workforces. Again, for reasons that are unclear, researchers focused on government have largely denied the value of private sector trends. They have created a belief that the work management practices proven in other sectors are somehow not appropriate, that government workers have different work motivations.
Leading companies began the transition to high performance work practices two decades ago. They know how to create high performance workplaces. Simply knowing how much they invest in developing executives and managers would be helpful. The most effective human capital policies and practices are hardly corporate secrets.
A statement by Tim Welsh, a vice chairman at U.S. Bank, a Roundtable member, describes a work environment that would contribute to better government: “We’re trying to create an environment where each and every person can thrive—where they feel they are at the top of their game, being their best self. We also need people to feel psychologically safe, that they are trusted, and that they trust the people around them, which allows them to bring their whole self to work and be exactly who they are, without fear.”
There is also The Business Council, again based in Washington, that was “originally convened in 1933 to advise the executive branch of the U.S. Government.” A core belief since its founding is that “government can benefit from the expert counsel of business leaders.”
Unfortunately, workforce management has not been a priority of the academic community. There has been minimal attention paid to the nexus between agency performance and employee experience. Employees want to contribute to their employer’s success. That’s true in every sector. The thread running through three decades of research studies in the private sector is everyone wins when employers invest in creating high performance work environments.
HR Needs to Take the Lead
Recently NAPA posted a draft Executive Order that would make the Director of the Office of Personnel Management a member of the Cabinet. Leadership at that level is essential to improved performance. For the near term, the potential payoff exceeds all other strategies including investing in new technology. OPM needs to shift its focus to helping agencies rebuild their workforce and enhancing the work experience. It starts with convincing leaders that this should be a priority. It's important that the next OPM Director has a solid understanding of HR’s role in leading change initiatives.
HR, however, cannot solve this problem. Outdated HR systems need to be replaced but the highest hurdle is the prevailing people management philosophy. The political argument that workforce costs need to be minimized is shortsighted. Across government, the importance of following the rules obviates risk taking and innovation. The Great Places argument emphasizes the importance of a high-trust workplace culture. That today is the missing ingredient. Raising the level of mutual respect and trust has to be a priority. Only leaders can make that happen. It cannot be delegated to HR.
This represents a significant change in HR’s historical role. The need is obvious. In a July release, Steve Goodrich, president and CEO of the Center for Organizational Excellence, voiced and answered a key question: “Why after so many expert recommendations over many years has the civil service not been modernized?” His answer was accurate: “The government is lacking the capacity to do so at several levels.” Two added issues complicate the problem. First, the history of failed change initiatives has contributed to a lack of trust and, it seems inevitable, resistance. And, the lack of capacity undermines OPMs credibility. Change management skills have to be included in building broader capacity.
Goodrich advocated legislation, the Human Capital Reform Act, “to begin the process of building the required capacity.” His argument is on point. However, it will be important to emphasize the goal has to be broader than replacing HR systems. Government needs to commit to a new management philosophy that recognizes the value of employees and their contribution. Government should be a great place to work.