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Biden’s Management Agenda Puts Feds Front and Center

A focus on creating “good jobs” and fostering partnerships with organized labor marks a departure from previous agendas’ more technocratic approaches.

President Biden’s management agenda, published Thursday, appears to elevate the role and importance of a happy federal workforce in federal agencies’ ability to meet their missions in a way that runs counter to his predecessors.

The management agenda outlines four strategies for empowering federal employees: attract and hire a new generation of diverse and qualified federal workers; ensure federal jobs are “good jobs” that engage and support workers, including through union representation; use lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic to integrate telework and other flexibilities into the federal workplace; and reform the federal personnel system to both meet agency missions and serve as a model for private sector employment.

The document specifically cites the need to attract young people to serve in the federal government, and it calls on agencies to foster positive collaborative relationships between managers and federal employee unions.

“Agencies should make it as easy as possible for their employees to communicate with union representatives and, if the employees choose, to join or organize a union,” the White House wrote. “The administration’s philosophy is that federal employee organizing is a good and productive workplace practice that it should facilitate.”

The agenda marks a 180 turn from the Trump administration, which argued that federal compensation needed to be overhauled to mirror the private sector, particularly in the way of reducing non-salary benefits, and saw federal unions as a pest to be eradicated.

But Don Kettl, professor emeritus and the former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, said Biden’s management agenda is nearly unprecedented in its focus on improving federal employees’ experience at work, perhaps even dating back to former President Clinton’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government.

“These recommendations are fewer and more focused, so that means that anything that does get included gets elevated in terms of importance, because there are few other priorities to compete with,” Kettl said. “Past PMAs sometimes would say, ‘Yes, pay attention to the workforce,’ but there was also a big focus on data, and there would be a long list of issues on the list. So there sometimes seemed to be a sense that if everything is on the list, then effectively nothing’s on the list. This time around, there’s no mistaking the fact that the administration is focusing very clearly on the federal workforce.”

Kettl said that the focus on improving employee engagement marks a subtle, but significant, shift in thinking from previous administrations: instead of seeking to grant agencies and managers more flexibility to shape the workforce to meet the mission, the Biden administration appears to argue in favor of empowering employees to do their best work.

“The question is, ‘What does it take to create the workforce we need?’ and the Trump strategy assumed that government was riddled with poor performers . . . and the key to performance is more flexibility for supervisors to rid themselves of problem employees,” Kettl said. “Compare that to the Biden effort, which takes a more benign view of workers, advancing the idea that the key to try to make them work more effectively is to engage them better. That’s really the strongest connection to the ‘reinventing government’ days, when the idea was that the real problem was that you’ve got good people in bad systems.”

Another subtle difference in approach that could lead to meaningful changes comes from the fact that every member of the President’s Management Council signed on as an author of the report, which Kettl said could create more ownership and accountability for implementing its priorities.

“It used to be seen as this document that was narrowly made and then narrowly held,” he said. “It’s not something that was foisted onto them; it’s a document that they own and share and will try to help implement. I think this is really a transition away from the Contract With America—on the one hand, it’s a contract with federal employees executed by supervisors, and it provides a direct connection between the president and those responsible for managing his agenda.”