TSA officers screen passengers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

TSA officers screen passengers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. AP file photo

Empowering Frontline Federal Workers

Change will require committed leadership. It’s a problem at all levels and in all functions.

With the focus on the inauguration and the launch of a new administration it's easy to forget that government’s achievements would not be possible without the skills and commitment of frontline workers. The pandemic and the hard work of healthcare specialists have made headlines for the past year. But frontline workers warrant similar attention in law enforcement, prisons, immigration—the list goes on. One of the often overlooked mistakes of the Trump administration was the belief that all any leader had to do was issue commands telling employees what to do. 

Talent management has gotten little more than lip service for decades. President Biden voiced what will presumably be the overriding management philosophy of his administration when he stated his commitment to “equality and worker empowerment.” Those words are missing from statements of Trump appointees. For the past four years, political concerns consistently overrode expertise. The problem is the dated work management assumptions behind the civil service system and the embedded work culture. Mutual distrust often adds to the problem. Change will require committed leadership. It’s a problem at all levels and in all functions. 

Research by Georgetown’s Donald Moynihan several years ago referred to management’s “passive use” of performance metrics. Despite the efforts of Congress to promote the “the purposeful use” of performance data, his research shows federal managers typically use performance data, not to improve performance, but “to comply with procedural requirements” of laws like the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act. That’s pervasive and inhibits performance at all levels.

Moynihan’s research also found “that perceived commitment by top agency leadership to results is positively associated with performance information use by managers.” That somewhat academic statement was clarified: “Leadership commitment means more than talking about performance.” It refers to the commitment of their time, organizational resources and the delegated responsibility to local managers and employees to initiate changes intended to improve results. The challenges cannot be addressed by legislation or dictates from the Office of Management and Budget. 

There are numerous examples of the importance of empowered federal employees. The FBI and NASA present obvious examples, often dramatized in movies and television. In less public agencies like the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, frontline employees are known to be among the world’s best. President Biden has already committed to relying on government’s experts by raising the White House science office to Cabinet-level status.

Official status is important but government needs to address the compliance culture and the risk aversion that prevents employees from adopting innovative ideas. Employees are steeped in that environment and their work habits are inculcated by the experience. Changing established behaviors is always difficult and here it will require both supervisors and their people to change their expectations, encouraging employees to make job-related decisions. That has to happen at each level, cascading from highest to the lowest. Leaders need to make it a priority.

Years ago, General Electric’s prominent CEO, Jack Welch, reportedly shared a telling anecdote: A manager who made a costly mistake supposedly said to Welch, “I assume you are going to fire me.” Welch’s response was, “Hell no, I just invested XX millions in your knowhow. From this point I expect better decisions.” 

A similar story is relevant to the first federal personnel management demonstration project, China Lake, where the commanding officer told his direct reports, “If you have any concerns or questions, we need to discuss them but when you leave this room you will be supportive” of the proposed changes. 

Former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker adopted a similar strategy when he initiated reform at the Government Accountability Office. I interviewed him for a recent column, “Reforming Agencies to be Ready for the Future”: 

“It is critical to link the agency’s strategic plan, core values, and desired outcomes to the performance management systems for both organizational units and individuals. At GAO, we redesigned our performance appraisal system to address “grade inflation,” focus on core competencies, and support the desired outcomes in our strategic and performance plans. In order to achieve sustainable success and promote continuous improvement, you need to have properly designed incentives, adequate transparency, and appropriate accountability mechanisms.”

That first sentence is important. It’s important to highlight that Walker worked for years in the private sector. There, as in the GAO reform, the performance management systems for both the organization and its people are interlinked. In government, it's common to find separate systems. That makes no sense. When individual objectives are clearly linked to aspirational goals like beating COVID-19, or other government goals, it is inspirational and attracts high caliber applicants. That linkage should be a priority.

GAO’s experience should be considered by any agency that wants to raise performance levels. Walker endorsed a theme commonly voiced by leaders in high performance organizations:

“The GAO is only as good as the people who comprise it. After all, the GAO is a professional services organization that supports the Congress and serves the America people in a professional, objective, fact-based, non-partisan, and non-ideological manner. 

Given the above, we made our people Priority One. To do so, we enhanced our recruiting practices, inventoried the skills and knowledge of our staff, expanded our training and development programs, implemented a new Office of Opportunity and Inclusiveness, modernized our performance management systems, implemented an employee suggestion program, and actively engaged with our employees through a diverse and representative Employee Advisory Council."

Those are all changes—especially the management philosophy—that agencies should consider adopting. 

Also important is a change that’s already underway in many frontline units—the increased autonomy triggered by working remotely as a response to COVID-19. Micromanagement is never associated with high performance. It bogs down an organization and creates a frustrating atmosphere for workers. While there is a downside to working remotely, it gives employees more flexibility and control over their work efforts. After the pandemic ends, it's highly likely many employees will prefer to work at least a portion of the workweek at home.

Focus on Star Performers

In government, top down supervision is often combined with a practice that originated decades ago—the focus on poor performers. In the best private sector organizations it’s the star performers that get the attention. That contributes to a culture where high performance is valued and encouraged. When the focus is on the few poor performers, it adversely affects the work experience of everyone who works with them. 

Performance is always a management problem, however. In today’s pandemic-driven work environment, the working relationships managers have with their people have changed dramatically. New technology is clearly essential for effective communication. But even more important is that it forces managers to rely on a new supervisory style and new skills. Developing mutual trust is essential. It's not clear that agencies have invested in converting their work paradigm to operate at a high level after the pandemic ends.

Government’s workforce problems have been discussed in a number of reports. The discussions, however, have been in general terms; it’s evident the specific problems have rarely been documented. Disclosing, for example, that an agency has a large number of vacancies may be useful to Congress or OMB but it says nothing about specific occupations, why the vacancies go unfilled, the changes needed to mitigate the problem, or more importantly how the vacancies affect agency operations. 

A problem that stands out is the reported early turnover of young new hires. The problem is the work experience. The loss of their talent is costly and disruptive to working relationships. The reasons they quit need to be understood and addressed to enable agencies to build for the future. 

Investment in the workforce has too often taken a back seat to investment in technology. That’s been true for years. But if the Biden administration is to effectively address the challenges ahead, it will need a committed, talented workforce. 

Addressing the nation’s problems will require top talent. The brand of government has been dinged but it can be restored. The basics are still the same. Young workers are known to look for employers that have a societal purpose, where they are valued and supported in their professional growth, treated fairly, and in light of the economic uncertainty, provided job security. They also look for flexibility and a good work/life balance. Government can again be a great place to work.