Addressing Federal Workforce Problems Should be a Top Priority for Biden
Kiran Ahuja has her work cut out for her at the Office of Personnel Management.
Kiran Ahuja cannot get started too soon as director of the Office of Personnel Management. She has strong support from leaders across the HR community. The Congressional hearing last week to “Revitalize the Federal Workforce” made it clear the problems are serious and that the stakeholders are far apart.
The hearing highlighted two core problems: 1) performance management is a failed system and 2) agreement on how to fix it will be impossible until relevant workforce facts are available. The hearing embodied the idiom “talking past each other.” The discussion failed to find consensus on the issues, much less the solutions.
After Trump’s efforts to dismantle OPM, the agency needs to be rebuilt. But before OPM’s role is addressed, the administration should work with agencies to understand the support needed to address workforce problems. Enormous changes in the way talent is managed have unfolded since the agency was created. Hopefully the new Director can build the consensus for needed change.
For years, workforce issues have not received the same attention as technology needs, although government’s payroll budget is roughly three times the budget for technology. Technology is vital, but it’s a tool for employees and their skills are essential to securing the full value of technology. For reasons that are never discussed, government has effectively ignored the changes proven to be factors in high performance organizations. Gallup’s research confirms that investing in workforce management pays off with significantly higher performance.
Emerging Workforce Problems
Trends that are converging presage workforce problems that should not be ignored. The aging workforce has been cited for years. The early termination of recent hires is another reported problem. The turnover is the result of dissatisfaction with the work experience. Concurrently, for a growing number of companies, finding qualified talent is their “greatest challenge”; worker shortages in high demand fields are going to get worse. Vacancies are already a problem in the Veterans Affairs Department. There are agencies that attract top talent. Making government a better place to work would solve this problem. Leadership is needed.
Low employee morale is an additional problem at some agencies. A new report from the Government Accountability Office confirmed morale is a problem in the Homeland Security Department. As many news outlets have documented, former President Trump’s four years of attacks on the civil service has taken a toll. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem. Going back even further, when survey responses from federal employees are compared with employees in private sector organizations, government consistently ranks lower in morale. One of the worst is the U.S. Postal Service, which scored at the 1st percentile on Gallup’s survey. Low morale adversely affects performance.
The people problems show up in performance. In a recent column, Grant Thornton’s Nina Kern stated, “All the ‘solutions’ to government’s problems promise to speed, streamline … but they rarely address the organizational changes required to actually make them effective. That’s a big mistake.” She sees that as the reason why too many government modernization efforts fail. Earlier this month, Georgetown’s Donald Moynihan largely disparaged government’s performance management efforts, starting with the Government Performance and Results Act. His most positive statement was “there’s evidence for optimism,” after studying experience with the GPRA Modernization Act (although he also said its “time for another careful reevaluation”). Together the two columns make it clear that government has a management problem, and that requires an investment in managers.
That problem was the focus of a two-part 2018 white paper from the National Academy of Public Administration, “No Time to Wait: Building a Public Service for the 21st Century.” In the Foreword, NAPA’s President, Terry Gerton also focused on program failures:
“The quality of government—the government’s ability to serve its citizens and to deliver value for taxpayer dollars—depends, to a degree seldom-recognized, on the talent and skill of federal workers. Over time, the alignment between the government’s mission, strategy, and tactics on one hand, and the capacity of its workforce on the other, has fallen further out of sync. The result has been an accumulating series of program failures that have grown into a genuine national crisis.”
The picture is complicated by Americans’ declining trust in government, as described by the Pew Research Center. Surveys show 75% of respondents believe declining trust in the federal government “makes problem solving harder.” The decline is “tied to the government’s performance.” Nearly half of adults under age 30 are in the low trust group. Reversing that trend could be important for the Biden administration to maintain support.
The COVID-19 crisis has added to workforce problems in all sectors. Initially the reports were positive—employees enjoyed their new autonomy and were more productive. Now, the reports are different—employees miss the social contacts at work, are depressed, burned out, anxious about their health and their families’ health, and their children are struggling. Employees’ mental health is an increasing concern. It’s likely federal employees are feeling the negative effects as well.
Reform is Needed Badly
Perhaps the highest barrier to addressing government’s workforce problems is gaining support for change. The entrenched distrust and skepticism, along with the size and complexity of the personnel system are major challenges. No other employer is this complex.
It’s often forgotten when government’s workforce policies are discussed but a critical common thread in business is the importance placed on improving performance. There is solid evidence employers can raise performance levels by improving the work experience and investing in better management. Every discussion of the “great places to work” culture emphasizes the impact on performance. Improved performance should be the goal for reform.
The world of work was vastly different when the civil service system was created. Now the pandemic has changed it even more. The “new normal” is significantly different than it was even a year ago. Experts in the private sector contend HR’s focus has shifted from the boardroom to frontline operations and enhancing the employee work experience. The pandemic has made everyone cognizant of the challenge of sustaining high performance with remote employees. The problems affecting frontline workers are now HR’s focus. Companies are introducing new programs for wellbeing, diversity, family support, and communications.
In a rapidly changing world, government’s inflexible people management model has become an impediment to good government. OPM’s bureaucratic operating approach is no longer working. Today it would be exceedingly difficult to find anyone willing to argue its operation adds value.
All the parties should treat this as a new era. While Trump was in the White House, there was definitely a need to protect workers’ rights. His appointments and White House advisers did not include anyone with hands-on experience in highly regarded companies. His “labor adviser” went straight from college to a conservative think tank and from there to the White House. The emphasis on loyalty was reminiscent of the patronage practices in the 1800s. It’s not surprising there was resistance.
In contrast, President Biden’s recent video message to the workforce expresses a management philosophy that is consistent with what is common in great places to work:
“You’re the ones running the show. I have the utmost trust in your capabilities … to make good decisions, stay focused on what’s most important: humility, trust, collegiality, diversity and competence.”
As President, his philosophy should be reflected in reviews of government’s human capital practices. Metrics can provide the evidence of progress when new practices are adopted. The best practices in other sectors are well documented and available.
A caveat is that the workforce problems in facilities as different as a U.S. Attorney's Office and a federal prison cannot be managed effectively with identical policies. Even within a multi-location agency like the Bureau of Prisons, local labor markets can present quite different workforce problems. That has been highlighted in recent Salary Council reports. It will be important to give agencies and their leaders the flexibility to address local problems. Only then can leaders be held accountable.
In other sectors, new HR positions like Chief Diversity Officer and Director of Employee Engagement are increasingly common. The pandemic has forced employers to adapt their people policies to the new environment. New practices are gaining rapid acceptance. In reviewing government’s policies, it will be important to consider the changes adopted by the country’s most successful organizations.
Last July Steve Goodrich’s firm, the Center for Organizational Excellence, partnered with the Senior Executives Association to develop recommendations to reform “the capacity of Human Capital Management across the federal government.” They addressed the question: “Why after so many expert recommendations over many years has the civil service not been modernized?”
That may well be the most perplexing question. There is broad agreement that change is needed, existing HR practices have been discredited, the need to revitalize the workforce is clear, and there is evidence from the demo projects that reform can be successful. It should be a no brainer.
The success of high performance organizations is attributable to the recognition that employees and their capabilities have been an underutilized resource. In a supportive environment they can perform at significantly higher levels and gain satisfaction in doing so. The workforce problems make it important. There will be no better time.