New OPM guidance calls on agencies to implement plans for labor-management forums by Sept. 3, including metrics for employee satisfaction, manager satisfaction and organizational performance.

New OPM guidance calls on agencies to implement plans for labor-management forums by Sept. 3, including metrics for employee satisfaction, manager satisfaction and organizational performance. Daenin Arnee / Getty Images

OPM’s labor-management forum guidance charts new ground for union policies

Federal agencies will be expected to embrace the return of collaborative councils, where federal employee unions may weigh in on future workplace policies, and measure the forums’ impact on employee engagement, agency performance and cost savings.

The Office of Personnel Management last week issued new guidance aimed at helping federal agencies reinstitute forums for management and federal employee unions to work collaboratively to solve problems and, for the first time, measure how the initiative affects employee engagement and agency mission fulfillment.

Earlier this month, President Biden signed an executive order restoring labor-management partnerships at federal agencies, rescinding a Trump-era edict banning the practice, as well as encouraging agencies to expand the use of registered apprenticeship programs to boost recruitment of young jobseekers into public service.

Though previous iterations of labor-management forums, undertaken during the Clinton and Obama administrations, encouraged agencies to measure how labor-management forums contribute to operational efficiencies, evidence gleaned was often anecdotal. Presidents George W. Bush and Trump then swiftly rescinded those policies upon taking office.

New guidance from OPM, issued to agency heads last week, governing implementation of Biden’s order seeks to set up a new enforcement mechanism for Biden’s edict, as well as the president’s other workforce policies, such as allowing bargaining over so-called “permissive subjects.”

It requires agencies to submit a plan by Sept. 3 to implement labor-management forums, including by creating a “shared vision” between agency and union leaders on the goals of the forum, as well as develop “specific metrics to monitor changes in employee satisfaction, manager satisfaction and organizational performance” resulting from the partnerships.

Robert Tobias, a distinguished practitioner in residence at American University’s Key Executive Leadership Program and a former president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said that he, along with the then-heads of the American Federation of Government Employees and National Federation of Federal Employees, helped craft President Clinton’s labor-management partnerships executive order in the 1990s. He described Biden’s edict, and OPM’s implementation memo, as a “comprehensive roadmap” for agencies to create successful labor-management forums.

“The idea that [agencies] are mandated to create an implementation plan that includes identifying a vision, identifying the current state of labor-management relationships with suggested questions, what they’re going to do to fix those relationships and how they’re going to implement the forums to achieve those goals, with what metrics they’ll use and so forth, there’s nothing equivalent to that in the past,” he said.

Tobias said he was encouraged that OPM’s guidance specifically seeks to refute complaints from managers dating back to the Clinton-era forums that the practice amounted to “comanagement,” a derisive term used by anti-labor agency leaders to describe their feeling that agency leaders would simply “give into” unions’ demands at partnership meetings.

“In creating [labor-management forums], departments and agencies must recognize that some managers, union leadership and employees may disapprove of and resist this effort,” OPM wrote. “Previous attempts at labor-management partnerships sometimes have been criticized as ‘co-management arrangements,’ typically by individuals who firmly believe that management and unions are adversaries. It is critical for the LMF to address these concerns early, with firm resolve and with a clearly articulated value proposition that answers the question, ‘What’s in it for me?’ for all stakeholders.”

Tobias said he’s hopeful that OPM’s focus on metrics and enforcement will finally provide a data-driven analysis of the impact of labor-management forums, and collective bargaining more broadly, on agency operations.

“There was one study done at the end of the Clinton administration with comprehensive surveys and interviews by Marick Masters, and he found that the self-reporting—without actual documentation—was very, very positive,” he said. “But no one had actually documented accurately or comprehensively what the advantage was, particularly of process improvements. So, my hope is that this newly issued guidance in connection with the executive order will, in fact, lead to actual measurement that will prove the value of collaborative labor-management relations.”

But with OPM’s approval of implementation plans slated for early November, the timing of the executive order could set agencies up for failure, since if Biden loses reelection, the edict will almost certainly be rescinded. And even if Biden wins, the tumult caused by the high turnover of political appointees following a reelection campaign could threaten the forums’ success.

“There’s going to be a lot of turnover of top-level appointees, so it’s going to be very difficult to get the attention of whoever is acting to engage in this kind of effort,” he said. “So although this is a wonderful piece of work, the fact is that it’s going to be a struggle to get it implemented.”