Success or failure depends on their ability to engage together as partners, writes one observer.

Success or failure depends on their ability to engage together as partners, writes one observer. Malte Mueller/Getty Images

Want successful integration of AI at federal agencies? Engage employees through the unions

COMMENTARY | AI will bring dramatic, disruptive, productive changes that can improve how the work of government is carried out over the next 10 years. To prepare for it, organizations will need to learn together and plan together.

The Age of AI has arrived with the recent release of ChatGPT. Earlier this month, OPM released a memorandum with initial instructions on the AI in Government Act of 2020.  AI will bring dramatic, disruptive, productive changes that can improve how the work of government is carried out over the next 10 years. But this could also mean serious technological failures leading to poor results and wasted dollars as well as negative consequences for employees. Will these AI developments be led, managed and planned via decision-making processes that lead to effective outcomes for the mission of the agency and for the employees who are tasked to carry out the mission? 

Not only will AI introduce significant changes over the next 10 years, it will do so at a rate of speed that will be faster than prior technological changes. For this reason alone, successful organizations will need to learn together and plan together from this moment forward. The general talk of AI replacing employees is constantly in the media. This will absolutely make the workforce nervous and fearful about their own careers and livelihoods. The employees will want to know whether the coming changes will augment them to make them more effective in their job or simply replace them. This anxiety will need to be addressed in a positive way and constantly if the AI changes are to be implemented smoothly. The employees will need training in some cases and reskilling in other cases. Taking care of the agency’s people must be priority number one alongside technological adoption if the leadership wants the changes to be successful.

There are 1.2 million federal government employees represented by employee unions across most agencies. Non-management employees are proud of their agency mission and their personal contribution in the same way managers and leaders are. These same employees have valuable first-hand front line knowledge and wisdom (that management often does not) on how the work gets done. This knowledge should not be overlooked and ignored when work is redesigned or new technologies and automation are brought into the workplace. If the agency leadership and management make decisions in a vacuum, the outcome is usually flawed implementation and less than desired results. If there is a union representing the employees and the interests of the employees are ignored as well, one can add conflict to the mix. Unfortunately, this path is chosen all too often for a variety of reasons.  

With the coming transformations in technology and work redesign, the path to success will come through engaging the employees through the full engagement of the employees’ union. It is important to recognize that the union is the collective voice of the employees and that the employees choose their representatives who will interface with management representatives. Thus to successfully engage the employees, the labor management process between management and the union should be based on a “full engagement framework.” 

What does this mean and what does it look like?

It starts with the very basic premise that management and non-management employees are partners in the successful performance of the mission of the agency. The mission cannot be successfully achieved by management without the non-management employees and vice versa. Sounds too simple to even think about – right? Wrong. This principle is fundamental to how one approaches the decision-making process and the engagement of both employees and their union. Engagement with employees is most successful when managerial employees and non-managerial employees recognize that they are partners in achieving the mission of the agency. It is nearly impossible to truly engage the employees if management does not adhere to this fundamental principle.

When former President Clinton and Vice President Gore made Reinventing Government a key objective, AFGE proposed a new and different approach in labor management relations based on the concept that management and non-management employees were partners in the successful outcome of the mission.  After months of dialogue, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12871—Labor-Management Partnerships on Oct. 1, 1993. The preamble stated:

The involvement of Federal Government employees and their union representatives is essential to achieving the National Performance Review’s Government reform objectives. Only by changing the nature of Federal labor management relations so that managers, employees, and employees’ elected union representatives serve as partners will it be possible to design and implement comprehensive changes necessary to reform Government. 

Partnership properly reflected that the non-managerial employees are as committed to and vested in the success of the mission of their agencies as the managers. While both groups have different perspectives, different information and experiences, different interests and different roles and responsibilities, they are joined together in achieving the mission. Neither can achieve the mission without the other. As Vice President Gore was fond of saying, when two people are in a rowboat together, it isn’t helpful to simply say to the other person, that your end of the boat is sinking. Success or failure depends on their ability to engage together as partners. 

Many old school agency leaders, operational managers, labor relations specialists and even some union leaders howled and verbalized their inability to accept the concept as they felt very threatened by the concept. However, there were a number of leaders/managers who saw the value and wisdom of engaging with their employees through the employees’ union in this different approach. 

Engagement based on the partnership concept does not mean giving up the respective interests or the respective responsibilities from either side. Management has interests and responsibilities and so do the union representatives. It is precisely the pre-decisional dialogue around the intersection of those interests, the open sharing of information, the shared vision of the mission, the shared analytics and the shared planning that leads to better decisions with faster and fuller implementation due to upfront engagement and buy-in from the workforce. That is full engagement.

Two quick stories following the issuance of the Executive Order on Labor-Management Partnerships are worth sharing.

The U.S. Mint was a total disaster of an agency at the time. Mission accomplishment was a failure. The agency was losing money instead of making money. Its reputation for making highly collectible coins was in severe distress. These are manufacturing plants. They had antiquated equipment and technology. 

On the employee state of affairs, the agency had a highly disgruntled workforce with high numbers of safety and health violations and injuries, EEO complaints, grievances and Unfair Labor Practice complaints. The Clinton administration appointed a new director who decided to use the new executive order to its full extent. He pulled together all his key managers and the AFGE union representatives for a joint strategic review and planning session. One of the top operational managers objected to the joint partnership approach and left the agency. 

The strategic planning team’s final plan was a complete overhaul and transformation of the agency. Everyone remembers the multi-year rollout of the new quarters minted for each state. The idea for the new coin venture, which came from this joint strategic review and planning effort, was key to the Mint’s return to credibility and profitability. Investments in new technology, plant equipment and training reestablished the production quality of collectible coins thereby restoring both the desirability of collectible coins and the profitability of the Mint. The parties set up systems to jointly review and resolve all of the workforce’s outstanding complaints and issues. The outcome was probably the quickest and most dramatic turnaround of an agency ever.

The second story is about Crane Naval Base, which is located in the land locked state of Indiana. Among various functions, it was a warehouse supply center. Management wanted to adopt some new technologies to automate the taking of supplies off the shelves for shipment. This would create a few new jobs but would also eliminate more jobs than it would create. 

The base Commander decided to approach this difficult transformation in a full engagement/partnership with the union. Clearly, the union/employees’ concerns centered on their desire to keep working to provide for their families. The Commander was open to using the special authorities under the law and the executive order to negotiate special arrangements with AFGE that guaranteed the employees other jobs on the base with reskilling and no loss in pay. Some of the provisions may have bumped up against normal regulations, but the contract was key to the automation change. 

The union and management came to the table with different perspectives and interests. Instead of management trying to drive the change with little regard for the union/employee interests or declaring key topics and proposals as non-negotiable under the law, they worked it out in a pre-decisional full engagement fashion to the satisfaction of both. It was a win-win allowing for the automation to take place in a timely fashion, for the employees to maintain their livelihoods and for the base to maintain a committed workforce who felt they were partners in the mission and not just capital costs to be reduced. The morale of the entire base workforce was uplifted instead of destroyed. 

These two stories demonstrate the power of labor management engagement based on the partnership concept. With the very challenging age of AI upon us, the only path to success over the next 10 years is through the full engagement with the employees’ union based on the partnership concept. But you don’t have to wait for AI to engage as partners. It is the right approach each and every day. Agency management can see continuous improvements in operational performance and the employees will feel engaged and part of the team.  

Brian DeWyngaert Sr. is the retired chief of staff and assistant to the president of AFGE, where he worked for 43 years. He has a bachelor’s in Business from Georgetown University and a master’s in Public Administration from the University of Baltimore.