Making the Case for a Federal Management Corps

The challenges facing the Veteran Benefits Administration may make it a good place to test a Management Corps.

In a recent Government Executive column, a Management Corps was proposed as a valuable new tool for achieving the President’s Management Agenda goal of making every federal job a “good job.” In the column, it was argued that a new set of skills will be needed to manage a more complex hybrid workforce in the years ahead.

The Office of Personnel Management has historically had the authority to approve demonstration projects to test out new human resource ideas. The concept of a Management Corps is clearly an idea worthy of testing and, based on our observations and experience, the Veteran Benefits Administration (VBA) in the Department of Veteran Affairs would be a strong candidate to test its potential. 

VBA administers the wide range of benefits Veterans earn for their service. This includes disability compensation, the GI Bill education, home loan guarantee and many more.  As many as 25,000 employees administer more than $100 billion of benefits annually. The key VBA performance measures are speed, quantity and accuracy of benefits delivered.

Why a Management Corps?

A major argument in favor of a Management Corps is the need for more highly trained managers who are equipped to manage a hybrid workforce of in-house civil servants, remote civil servants, in-house contractors and remote contractors. During the pandemic, the number of telecommuting workers at VBA dramatically increased, and while government managers have long had experience with remote staffers, the number of teleworkers created a new “ballgame” for the federal government.

Managers in VBA told agency leaders that they had no training and limited experience in managing remote staffers. In addition, there were instances in which managers mishandled issues related to telework. VBA top leadership spent much time resolving these issues and attempting to develop consistent policies for managing telecommuters. It became clear that VBA managers had not been trained or prepared to manage remote staff. 

At VBA, managing daily performance for both in-house employees and teleworking employees is a key activity of leaders at all levels within the agency. Traditionally, managing daily performance has been done in-person through observation and meetings. With everyone working remotely during the pandemic, leaders began to experiment with new ways to provide “over-the-shoulder” assistance. Without an existing playbook, new approaches were developed.  A well-trained new Management Corps could identify and adopt the most effective approaches.

A second argument supporting the concept of a Management Corps is the need to create new pay scales for managers. Based on the experience of VBA, the pay differential between managers and non-managers is negligible. Potential employees who would have been strong managers saw there was little financial incentive to become a manager. Thus, many talented employees opted not to become managers. 

While pay is not only the reason to become a manager, pay is an important ingredient to the professionalization of managers in government. Today, management is not viewed as a profession.  At VBA, it is an auxiliary responsibility to their “day job” of processing claims.  By creating a Management Corps, management becomes a full-time responsibility and has a clear managerial track. Today, like many other federal agencies, there is no management track at VBA. 

Implementing a Management Corps

There are three key steps in implementing a demonstration project to test the potential value of a Management Corps at VBA. First, there is the nitty-gritty bureaucratic work to be done prior to the creation of the Management Corps. Jobs will need to be classified (or reclassified) as part of the new Management Corps. Equally important, some jobs now classified as management will be “taken out” of the management since these positions may be primarily technically oriented and not managerially oriented. A pay band system for managerial salaries will need to be created.  The creation of a pay band system will solve the issue of pay differential which now discourages VBA employees from applying for managerial positions.  

Second, after the bureaucratic apparatus is in place and the number of Management Corps positions agreed upon, the application process will begin. This is a key step in that it will involve key decisions by two groups of employees within VBA: those who decide that they are interested in pursuing a managerial career and those who decide that they no longer want to manage people and in fact, may never have been eager for a managerial position. Many civil servants historically “fell” into the managerial ranks because of the government seniority system and the existing classification system. We believe that there are many civil servants (many of whom have not yet been identified) who have the skills and interest in developing employees, engaging employees, and improving employee productivity.   

Once the new members of the VBA Management Corps are selected, they will be sent to the VBA Management Academy to receive training in federal “management.” Managing the new hybrid workplace would be one of the core courses. The new course on hybrid management will discuss the challenge of developing both remote employees and in-person employees. Other courses might include customer service and employee engagement.  

Mark A. Abramson and Paul R. Lawrence are co-authors of Succeeding as a Political Executive: 50 Insights from Experience. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. Lawrence is the former Under Secretary for Benefits, Department of Veteran Affairs. They can be reached via email at: mark.abramson@comcast.net and lawrencepaul@cox.net.