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How Biden Can Strengthen the Federal Workforce

There is no better way to understand how the work experience has changed and how it can be improved than meeting with front line employees.

President Biden’s budget proposal for 2022 recognizes “decades of under-investment in a modern workforce” and the need to repair and rebuild the civil service. It provides for increasing federal employment by 20,000 positions this year and by 50,000 in 2022.  

As expected in a budget proposal, the focus is on the numbers, but Biden frequently has spoken of his goal of restoring faith in the civil service, using the words “revitalize” and “empower” in multiple public statements.

While the President’s commitment is clear, the government's workforce problems go far beyond backfilling vacancies caused by the Trump administration’s hiring freezes and budget cuts. As Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, recently told the Washington Post, “This is not simply about undoing what Trump did. Going back to where we were would not work in the world we’re in.” The usual high level planning and head counts ignore the impact of how the pandemic and remote working has changed organizations and the day to day people issues.

Biden’s goals go beyond “government as usual,” including several that will require cross-agency collaboration. Tackling new problems will require new strategies, new organization structures, and new skills. His references to revitalize and empower are on point but will require changing the work experience, moving to a more dynamic and agile approach to management than the “compliance culture” discussed in reports from the National Academy of Public Administration. It’s essential to understand and address the problems that have contributed to the early turnover of new hires.

In this context, the abrupt shift to working remotely has accelerated needed change, giving employees increased autonomy and individual responsibility. As the pandemic winds down, a first step is understanding how that has changed manager/employee working relationships. Notably, scores on the 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey improved and it will be important to understand if that is attributable to working remotely. There is no better way to understand how the work experience has changed and how it can be improved than meeting with front line employee groups.

Several times over the past decade or two someone has opined that government should be “a model employer.” It’s not. That’s clear from a simple comparison of FEVS responses on questions found in private sector surveys—the average scores in the private sector are consistently higher. The key survey question with the widest gap is: “I have trust and confidence in my supervisor.”  

Lessons from the Best Places to Work

Fortune’s list of the best big companies to work for in 2021 was released in April. Realistically, the private sector started to move away from the traditional top-down, “do what you’re told” management philosophy three decades ago, but the first self-managed teams were actually introduced in the 1970s. In response to the 1990 recession, companies cut layers of management and initiated changes to empower employees to reduce costs and respond more quickly to business problems. Government could learn a lot from what has transpired in the corporate world in those three decades. 

The companies on Fortune’s list each have practices that should be considered as models for government. A number are technology companies but several have workforces where unionization could be attractive. Among those are:

Marriott International, No. 3 on the list: "One of the most welcoming and inclusive places I have ever worked as soon as I joined the company—this holds true from associates’ attitudes to diverse lunch options that are offered in the cafeteria. We are made to truly feel like we work for a global company that values other perspectives and cultures.

Publix Super Markets, No. 11: “The investment that this company has in its greatest asset, its people, is unmatchable. I feel valued, respected, and fulfilled with the chance to deliver exceptional service to every customer that chooses Publix. I feel like, as an employee, my voice is heard and respected and that I can make a difference here.”

Publix is unique among grocery store chains; it’s employee-owned and was recently rated as the best supermarket company in the country. Government obviously cannot offer employee ownership but research shows that when employees benefit when their employer is successful, the organization performs at higher levels. That’s the argument for profit sharing. Research also shows that a shared accountability mindset can be realized in any work group. Publix’ ranking confirms that organizations do not have to offer exciting career opportunities to be a “great place to work” employer.

Rebuilding agencies will necessitate a number of changes—defining requisite skills, reducing the time to hire, improving onboarding, providing adequate training for supervisors and managers, and addressing the early turnover problem. Change will be resisted but it is badly needed. The entrenched civil service practices and approach to workforce management are incompatible with what young, highly qualified graduates are seeking. Agencies need to understand how and where their work environment is a barrier to achieving the administration’s goals.  

Creating a Shared Commitment Culture

Gallup research confirms that organizations that “create cultures of ownership, shared responsibility and proactive initiative” consistently perform at higher levels. As Gallup puts it:  

“Organizations are desperate to create cultures of ownership, shared responsibility and proactive initiative. Of all the steps leaders take to be sure people will perform well in a job, the one with the most influence is commonly difficult for leaders to know how to address: finding an employee's personal connection to the work.

That can be a core government advantage when organizational goals, progress in achieving those goals and team or individual contributions are regularly communicated. It's central to the reason many people consider government careers. Celebrating performance at the level where it's most meaningful to co-workers reinforces the importance of performance to everyone.  

Some companies have an advantage over government—they can offer executives and sometimes other employees opportunities to invest in company stock. To satisfy investor and government requirements, they routinely report financial results and major accomplishments. They also universally maintain cash incentives where a portion of the payout is linked to annual company results. The potential financial gains are a powerful incentive but as with Publix, companies with a culture that emphasizes employee empowerment routinely perform well. 

Research shows the companies that make the “best places” lists perform better. For the publicly traded companies on the list, their stock has increased 722% since 1998, three times the increase for the Russell 3000 Index (a benchmark for the U.S. stock market). In addition, companies that make the lists attract well-qualified applicants who want to work for the best. Their employees are “13 times more likely to express a commitment to stay with their employer for a long time.”

An alternative that serves a similar purpose is Germany’s co-determination or shared governance concept.  German employees have representatives on corporate boards as well as Works Councils at the workplace, with regularly scheduled meetings to discuss work-related issues with management. Together the laws have contributed to largely cooperative labor-management relations. There is a separate but similar statutory provision providing for staff councils in Germany’s government.

But there is a downside. Gallup’s engagement surveys show currently only 15% of German workers are engaged, and the number has never been higher than 16% percent since 2001. One theory is that’s because union leaders and local representatives work so closely with management that their relationships with workers they represent becomes formal and highly structured.

The Works Council idea has a lot in common with hospitals that earn Magnet recognition for valuing nursing talent and with the role of a faculty senate in higher education. In both sectors, the culture supports giving employees a say in decisions that affect them and their professional knowledge is valued.  

Government has a lot to learn from other sectors. Fortune’s list of the best companies is replete with highly successful companies, starting with Cisco Systems and Salesforce. Publix and Wegmans are No. 1 and No. 2 in their industry. None of these companies would be as successful if they operated with government’s compliance-focused culture. 

Focus on the Front Line

The dilemma for agencies committed to revitalizing and empowering the workforce is that it cannot be accomplished top down, although leaders have to make it clear to managers and supervisors that the era of close, over-the-shoulder supervision must end. That started as more employees began working remotely during the pandemic, but it must become routine in the way managers and employees interact going forward. It’s highly likely managers will need to develop new skills.

It may be threatening to many managers, but employees need to be involved in the decision making that affects local operations. Those employees understand the problems better than anyone. They should also play a role in defining local performance goals. That helps to ensure their commitment. As with a winning sports team, when everyone is focused on the goal, the chances of success are far higher.