Tele-Goofing Off?

I read an interesting article on telework in Government Executive last week. The headline asked “Is This the Right Time for the White House to Promote Working from Home?” Reporter Kellie Lunney’s article highlighted OPM Director Katherine Archuleta’s August 22 memorandum to agency heads on expansion of workplace flexibilities and work-life programs. The question regarding timing is certainly legitimate. The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is in the midst of a scandal regarding its telework program. The USPTO issues are representative in type (but probably not scope) of those other agencies are experiencing.

Those issues (tele-goofing off rather than working, inability to accurately measure productivity) and management unwillingness to deal effectively with performance and conduct issues) put workplace flexibilities at risk. They can damage the reputation of the Federal workforce, and they provide fodder to those who believe Federal employees are doing too little work for too much pay.

Telework and other workplace flexibilities are a good thing for government and the private sector. They allow organizations to dramatically reduce their office footprint and reduce costs. They take traffic off the roads and reduce congestion. They allow employees to reclaim their commuting time and use it for personal pursuits. In a labor market where telework is commonplace, having effective telework programs allows employers to compete for talent. They allow employers to remain open during weather emergencies because their workforce can continue working from their home offices. Telework has its detractors too. They claim it is too hard to monitor performance when people work from home. They say some employees use telework as a substitute for child care and are not productive at home. They believe telework interferes with team dynamics and makes working as a cohesive team much more difficult. There is some truth to all of the complaints and praises of telework, but the fact is telework is expanding and will continue to expand.

Rather than attempting to reverse telework programs, we should be working on fixing the problems. Nothing I have experienced, heard from people currently in government, or read tells me telework and other workplace flexibilities should be killed. That toothpaste is out of the tube. Government should take steps to improve accountability and make the programs work. I know they can. Some of the agencies where I worked handle telework effectively. My current employer, ICF International, uses telework extensively. Our workforce is responsible and incidents of abuse are rare. We are able to assess employee productivity and know when problems are developing. We are not alone. Others in industry and in government manage these programs well.

Some of the problems with telework are also problems when employees are working from their employer’s building. I remember a discussion with a colleague who was an Army Major General. He opposed telework and refused to allow it in his organization. When I asked why, he said “I need to know people are working, and when I want to speak with someone, they need to be here.” So I asked, “Do you know who is working on the other side of your office wall? If you leave your private office and walk back to where the dozens of cubicles are, will you know who is working? When you want to speak with someone, do you summon them? Walk back to their cubicle? Or do you send an email or pick up the phone?” He agreed that he didn’t know if everyone was working at that time and if he wanted to speak with someone he would call them.

Short of walking around all day and looking in all of the cubicles, managers cannot know who is working simply by proximity. They need measures of performance and productivity. Good measures work whether the employee is in a Federal office building or working from home. The most critical key to effective telework programs is good productivity and performance measures. Without them, telework is less effective. However, without them, working in an office – any office – is less effective.

Plans to implement telework often focus on some of the obvious needs – technology, agreements with the union, processes for requesting and approving it, and the adequacy of a home workspace. Performance is usually part of the discussion, but detailed performance and productivity measures are not always part of that discussion. They must be if telework is to be effective. Managers should have a discussion with each teleworker before their first day of working from home to explain what is expected, hours they are expected to work and any flexibility of hours that is allowed, how their productivity will be measured, and what good performance looks like. Notice the difference between telework and working in the office? No? That is because there is no difference. Other than those things that are specifically caused by working remotely, such as the need for access to systems from home, there is no real difference between telework and office work.

The one problem that can be a deal killer for telework is trust. If an employee cannot be trusted to work independently, s/he cannot be trusted to telework. S/he also cannot be trusted to sit in a cubicle in the office and work. The only real difference in those cases is that there are coworkers around and they may report the person for goofing off.

If we address the issues of measures and trust, there is no reason why telework should not be expanded. If the issues are not addressed and support for telework begins to wane, the government may find itself with one more recruiting challenge (on top of Fed-bashing, pay freezes, and furloughs) – the lack of a perceived benefit that is offered by most people who are competing for the same talent. We already have enough challenges in recruiting young people for government.


They Picked Who?? Selecting People to be Supervisors

Supervisors drive much of employee perceptions of agencies. They make or recommend training approvals, selections, leave approval and more. I have heard many people say (and I agree) that people go to work for organizations, but they leave a supervisor. We know great supervisors can make even the most trying agency a better place to work, while lousy supervisors can make even the best organization a horrible workplace. With that perception being so widespread, most people would conclude supervisory selection processes are carefully designed, intended to select the best leaders, and receive a tremendous amount of attention from senior leaders and agency heads. And most people would be wrong.

In fact, the recruiting and selection process most agencies use for supervisors is no different from what they use for other jobs. It is typically a questionnaire that is mostly copied from other similar jobs they have filled. The questions are, at best, the result of a basic job analysis that is not particularly rigorous. Most focus less on the supervisory aspects of the job than the technical aspects. There are currently more than 1800 supervisory jobs advertised on OPM’s I sampled dozens of the current listings and found only a few that focused intensely on supervisory/leadership skills. For most, the majority of questions are purely technical. For a basket weaver supervisor, the questions are intended first and foremost to determine how adept the applicant is at basket weaving. The so-called “soft skills” of leadership are covered in a few questions that clearly do not drive who is on the final referral list. The problem is compounded by the quality of the leadership-reated questions that agencies are using. Here is a sample of the type of question we see far to often:

  • Do you provide leadership in setting the workforce`s expected performance levels commensurate with organizational strategic objectives.
    • I have not had education, training, or experience in performing this task
    • I have had education or training in performing this task, but have not yet performed it on the job
    • I have performed this task on the job, but with close review and assistance from either a supervisor or a senior employee.
    • I have performed this task as a regular part of a job and only in unique or unusual situations did I require assistance or review by a supervisor or a senior employee.
    • Others regularly consult me for my expertise and assistance in performing this task or I have trained or instructed others so that they can perform this task.

What is wrong with this question? It is vague, focuses on activity rather than results, and does not address at all how well the applicant might have done the work. The first four answers address education and the level of supervision under which the work is performed. The last answer finally gets to expertise, but only as the applicant believes other people perceive him/her. Most of us have worked with people who believe they are exceptionally good when they are actually just average on a good day. Which answer do we think that type of applicant will select? Here is another example:

  • Select all of the statements from below that best describe your supervisory responsibilities and experience:
    • I have assigned work to subordinates based on priorities and skill levels.
    • I have established measurable performance goals for subordinates.
    • I have evaluated work performance of subordinates and have counseled them.
    • I have initiated formal performance improvement plans.
    • I have made final selection decisions for permanent positions.
    • I have realigned staff assignments to accommodate work or workload changes.
    • I have heard and have resolved complaints and grievances from employees and groups of employees.I have effected minor disciplinary measures and proposed major disciplinary actions.
    • I have initiated awards and have approved training requests for subordinate employees including budgetary requirements
    • I have limited supervisory experience
    • None of the above.

This question lists tasks, but does not address frequency of performing them, recency of the experience, or how well they were done. The question was one of 13 total questions and one of 4 that addressed supervisory skills. That means the majority of the score is most likely coming from the technical questions and the part that is based upon supervisory skills does nothing to address how well the applicant performed.

That technical skills focus is the single largest problem in the hiring and promotion process for supervisory jobs.  That flawed screening process is not typically followed by any kind of formal assessment to ensure the best candidate is selected. With so much focus on technical skills, the agency identifies the person who has the best technical skills and misses the candidates who might have great leadership skills but be only average in technical ability. Supervisors are not required to be the technical expert – they are required to be the best supervisor. Those are completely different skill sets, but agencies select people based on the technical skill set and place them in jobs that require an almost completely different skill set. When people are selected for a job (supervisor) based upon their ability to do a very different job (individual contributor), there is a lack of connection between the new role, the competencies it requires for success, and the screening process that is so obvious that it should be high on the list of hiring processes that will be fixed.

My review of job announcements and discussions with human resources professionals and agency managers found that the problem is generally acknowledged to be real and in need of a fix, but few resources are being devoted to the fix. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Inertia. In physics, inertia is a property of matter by which it remains at rest or in uniform motion in the same straight line unless acted upon by some external force. Organizations experience inertia as well. Human Resources professionals know they have problems with this issue, but their agencies are also facing many other problems. They have to decide which problems will get their limited amount of time and money. In most agencies there is no force to counter the inertia because this problem has not caused enough obvious pain to get attention and using existing processes is easier than making dramatic changes.
  • Safety in numbers. The supervisor selection problem is common, but the commonality may make it less likely that it will be addressed soon. Pervasive problems such as this can be lumped into the “it has always been like this and always will” bucket. There is a degree of safety in doing what almost everyone else is doing, even if it is wrong.
  • Underestimating the effects of the problem. When we have an issue that so many people agree is a problem, the fact that it has not risen to the top of the to do list is evidence that agencies believe there are other more serious problems that need attention.

Seeing the true effects of the supervisor selection problem is essential to overcome inertia and safety in numbers. When agencies fully understand what happens as a result of the flawed selection process, they should devote the necessary resources to fix it. So what are those effects?

  • We break the high performers. Highly talented people get selected for the wrong jobs, then are blamed by their agencies for their lack of supervisory skills. It is critical to remember that many bad supervisors are great employees. They were put in the wrong job and not given the training necessary to develop their skills. That leads to unhappy supervisors, unhappy employees, and unhappy bosses.
  • Employee morale and productivity tank. Employee surveys such as the OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) focus mostly on issues that are within the control of supervisors. In FEVS, 65 of 84 2013 FEVS Questions cover subjects supervisors and managers can directly or indirectly influence. By selecting the wrong people for supervisory jobs, agencies are pushing employee morale off a cliff. That leads to turnover, higher cost, lower productivity, performance deficiencies, and more.

One solution to this problem is to have thorough leader development programs that help strong technical folks become better leaders. I have written about that subject before and still believe such programs are essential for any agency. But there is another solution that also needs to happen. Agencies need to fix the supervisory selection process. The good news is that everything that needs to be done is within the control of agencies. Here are the key characteristics of a better process:

  • Thorough job analysis. The relatively simple job analyses agencies conduct are intended to serve as a type of validation necessary to satisfy the requirements of the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures. In fact, many job analyses are just copies of others used for similar jobs. That is part of the problem. We have a flawed process. We have people replicating previous work in the interest of expediency. So we get replication of flawed processes and continuation of the problem. At the very least, agencies should conduct a new job analysis for any supervisory position where the existing analysis is focused on technical rather than supervisory skills.
  • Competency modeling. Rather than doing a simple job analysis, agencies should consider developing more robust competency models for all supervisory positions. Such models will have more scientific rigor and are more likely to be developed by Industrial/Organizational Psychologists than by HR Specialists. Good models provide a foundation upon which agencies can build a selection process that is more likely to produce good leaders rather than good technical specialists.
  • Competency-based assessments. Building upon the foundation of the competency models, agencies should develop assessment methods that allow them to more accurately measure the likelihood a given candidate will perform well in a leadership role.
  • Improved interview processes. One aspect of assessing candidates for leadership roles should be a structured interview. Traditional interviews have been proven repeatedly to have little ability to predict performance on the job. Throwing darts at a dart board is only slightly less valid. Structured interviews are more objective and typically eliminate the type of informal questions many interviewers love to ask. If such interviews are going to be conducted by more than one person, a series of individual interviews can be more effective than convening a rating panel. Such panels often fall victim to a dominating interviewer who drives everyone’s perception of the candidate. A small number of one-on-one interviews can eliminate that problem and truly obtain perspectives of multiple interviewers.
  • Leader development. Once more qualified candidate get through the process, selectees should have much better skills for their new supervisory roles. That does not mean they are perfect. New supervisors’ skills should be compared with the competencies for the position and a training plan put in place (and followed) to close any gaps that might exist.

All of these process fixes can be implemented quickly and without spending hundreds of millions of dollars. They would significantly improve the likelihood of the best leaders being selected for supervisory jobs. That in turn should allow agencies to improve morale, productivity and overall performance. The cost is so low and the benefit so great that there is no reason not to get started now.


Anything Worth Buying Once is Worth Buying 10 Times?

I cringe every time I hear someone tell me they went into human resources work because “I’m a people person!” HR obviously supports an organization’s people programs, but there is far more to it than liking people. In many respects, HR is more about program design, development and management than it is about individuals. One aspect of HR program management that needs a lot of work is HR information technology. Agencies are spending billions of dollars on HR IT, yet they are not getting billions of dollars in value. Why is that? And can it be made better?

The answer to the second question is yes, but it will take a change in how IT requirements are identified and systems are funded and acquired. That change is more consequential than it may seem, both in terms of impact and difficulty. The difficulty arises from the answer to the “Why” question about problems with HR IT.

HR systems in most agencies are under the purview of HR offices. In many Departments, they are under the purview of multiple HR organizations at the Departmental headquarters and at the bureau/component/agency/service level. On top of that, there is often no clear process for defining requirements and funding them. When I arrived at the Department of Homeland Security in 2009, I found the Department had more than 300 HR systems of varying sizes and cost. Many of them did the same thing, and in some cases, involved purchasing the same software multiple times. For example, we found more than a half dozen Learning Management Systems (LMS), including two that had each been purchased by different components. Rather than using its combined purchasing power to get the best possible price through enterprise buys, the components operated on their own. A few key systems were standardized across the enterprise, but many were not. The cost of that type of redundancy is substantial. It adds cost to licenses, development, and administration. In the best of circumstance, it results in slightly different implementations of the same system. Other times it results in multiple solutions for the same problem, with no interoperability and greatly increased costs. Just as one example, consider that consolidating to one LMS in DHS could result in savings of $5 million or more per year.

Former DHS CIO Richard Spires and I decided the laissez-faire approach simply could not continue. We found our own organizations were part of the problem. An ongoing turf battle over who controlled HR IT meant key staff who should have been working on common solutions were distracted by constant discussions about who should do what. These were not problem people – they were good people stuck in a bad organizational construct. We addressed the problem by placing the most technical HR IT folks under control of the CIO, but housed in the space of the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer. We put a seasoned SES in charge of HR IT, and created a program management process to identify requirements, determine funding requirements, and oversee headquarters and component HR IT. We asked for and got a letter from the Deputy Secretary (Jane Holl Lute), requiring that any new HR IT systems be approved by the DHS CHCO and CIO. As a result, DHS is moving toward streamlining and reducing the cost of HR IT.

The issues DHS faced are not unique. They are repeated at the Department and Bureau levels in many places in the government. If every Department and independent agency got complete control of HR IT, eliminated redundancy and improved program management, they might find there is enough money in existing budgets to fund everything they need to provide the best HR technology available. It seems like a simple proposition, but our experience at DHS showed that it upsets too many parochial interests to be easy. Those interests are not limited just to people within the organization. In the case of DHS, much of the HR IT money is in component appropriations rather than at the DHS level. That makes moving the money around to manage smartly a bit more difficult, but not impossible.

So – am I recommending that happen? Should Departments and Agencies manage all of their HR IT at the highest level of the organization? Yes, but only for HR IT that is not common. I believe there is another solution that is better, but admittedly is much more difficult to implement, for systems that multiple agencies use. The solution is not to define the enterprise as a Department or Agency, but rather to define it for core HR systems as the entire Federal government. Core systems, like the LMS I mentioned above, payroll, benefits, timekeeping and record keeping, are so similar from one agency to another that there is little reason to buy them over and over and over and over. One great example is the core HR system that agencies use to process personnel actions. In the Department of Defense, it is a customized version of Oracle HR. In other agencies it is Peoplesoft or a COBOL based system from the Department of Agriculture National Finance Center. Peoplesoft and Oracle HR are both owned by Oracle. Why does the government buy the same system multiple times? Would it not be better to enter into one agreement with Oracle to buy one of their two systems? Even having one agreement to buy each of their two systems would be better than running multiple instances that are each tweaked just enough to make them harder to maintain and not easily used by multiple agencies. If the government used only one such system, it would be far easier to ensure accuracy of transactions when employees move from one agency to another, and it could make it more likely that OPM would have complete and accurate records when employees retire.

Talent acquisition systems are another great example. Agencies are using systems from Monster,, Taleo, Avue Technologies and a home-grown system from the Office of Personnel Mangement. All of those systems have their supporters and detractors. OPM has made great strides in making it possible for those systems to work with USAJobs, the government’s job board, but that still means applying for jobs is different from one agency to another. It might seem the easy solution is to go to just one system, but there has been so much invested in those systems that changing from one to another is far more costly than one might imagine. That doesn’t mean there are not better ways to buy them. Why not have one agency (such as GSA or OPM) enter into an enterprise agreement with each of the providers, with agencies being able to use a modern talent acquisition system without having to go through the process of buying it and recompeting it every few years. While they are at it, establishing a blanket purchase agreement that allows agencies to buy assessment services from a variety of providers would make the process even better.

If the core systems were acquired using a more consistent enterprise approach, agencies could be free to use the resources they save to address other requirements for HR IT that truly are peculiar to their agency mission and workforce. If HR IT becomes a partnership between the CHCO and CIO in every agency where that is not now the case, they will find they can get more done with the same or less resources. The only losers in the process are those who want to protect their parochial interests at the taxpayers’ expense. Not a bad tradeoff if you ask me.


Everything Old is New Again

15 years ago, the Department of Commerce proposed abolishing the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), an agency that serves as a repository for government-funded scientific, technical, engineering and business-related information and provides a variety of services to other Federal agencies. In 1999 their view was that NTIS had outlived its usefulness.  Much of the material they cataloged and sold was becoming available on the Internet, and they believed the agencies whose material NTIS houses could simply maintain their own material. I was the Deputy Director of Human Resources for Commerce at the time, so I became very involved in the discussion. Like several other senior executives and political appointees in the Department, I believed there was still value in the services NTIS offers. While it was true that much of what they sell was available online, much of it was not. There are also a lot of people who want to consume information in printed form. Given a choice of online and free or printed for a fee, they will go with printed. After much internal debate, discussion and arguing, the Department agreed that NTIS would be downsized, but would remain in place. The decision was based in part on the idea that the government invests a tremendous amount of money in producing information and cannot rely on countless web sites, government and non-government, to maintain the information. Much of what is maintained online is driven by traffic. If it gets enough hits, it stays up. If not, it may be deleted. The NTIS decision was based on sound logic, resulted in savings for the taxpayers, and ensured the wealth of information they maintained would be available to the people (you) who paid for it. Fast forward 15 years. There is a Senate bill called the “Let Me Google That For You Act” that proposes abolishing NTIS for the same reasons stated 15 years ago.

I have to give the bill’s sponsors credit for a catchy name for the bill, but beyond that I think there is more to consider than just how the Internet has changed the storage and retrieval of information.

  • The bill references a 2012 GAO report that said 74% of the information NTIS sells is available free on agency websites and in other locations. That means a quarter of such information is not available and it says nothing about how long the information will be on those web sites.
  • NTIS is not the only agency that sells printed versions of documents that are available free from various Sites on the Internet. The Legislative Branch Government Printing Office sells print copies of many documents, including budget reports and others, that are freely available as electronic versions. The simple fact is some people want or need print editions. As much as many of us have embraced technology, some people have not or cannot.
  • “Free” isn’t free. Information on agency web sites has a cost. They pay for hosting, security, programming, site design, maintenance, and other operating costs. Because the money is not charged directly to consumers of the information, we think of it as free when it is not.
  • NTIS operates using a revolving fund rather than appropriated money. Because it has to earn its keep, they sell products and services (full disclosure – my employer ICF International is an NTIS Joint Venture Partner). Agencies such as NTIS that operate using revolving funds have to function much more like businesses. They identify products and services they can sell, determine how they can add value to customers, market their services, and add or subtract staff based on revenues. If they fail to bring in adequate revenue, they suffer the consequences, much like anyone in the private sector. Thus, the market can and does decide whether NTIS should exist.

My views on NTIS have not changed since I was involved with them 15 years ago. I am concerned that much of the information available from NTIS will cease to be available if NTIS is abolished and a well-established service provider will go away.

If there is going to be a public policy discussion regarding the mission and existence of NTIS, my recommendation is that it be expanded into a comprehensive look at how the government maintains and provides access to the vast amounts of information it pays for. Findings resulting from government grants for scientific research, technical data, reports from government agencies, and countless other types of data are produced every day. Taxpayers should have access to the information their tax dollars support. Relying on commercial search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing to find the information and hoping agencies will maintain it on their web sites for years doesn’t seem to be the best public policy.

We would be better off if one or more agencies are charged with maintaining and making that information available. The funding mechanism should be part of that debate. Some would argue it should be funded with appropriated money, while others would argue it should be funded by the people and organizations that consume the information. Both ideas have merit.

The issues the sponsors of this bill have raised are valid topics for a public policy discussion. Let’s have that discussion on a broad basis rather than focusing on one small agency. The result could be substantially more access to information at a reasonable cost.



SES Reform: Accountability or Politics?

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved the “Senior Executive Service Accountability Act” that, if approved by the full House, the Senate and the President, would significantly change conditions of employment for members of the Senior Executive Service (SES). When we see a new bill to “reform” the civil service in any way, we always need to ask, “are you a good bill or a bad bill?” In this case, is the bill really about improving accountability or is it an exercise in politics. I believe the answer is a little of both. Let’s go through the provisions of the bill and see what the effects would be.

  • Modification of Pay Retention for Senior Executive Service Members Removed for Under Performance. Currently, when an SES member is downgraded based upon performance, s/he is granted pay retention. That means you can perform badly, get downgraded, and still make SES pay for doing GS-15 work. When the same thing happens to a GS employee, s/he suffers a pay reduction to anywhere from the first to the 10th step of the pay grade to which demoted. The SES provision has been a bit of a sweet deal that probably should go away. This provision takes away the pay retention and pays them for the grade level they are going to. Verdict on this one: Accountability
  • Requirement that Performance Requirements be Established in Advance. This provision mandates performance standards be in place at least 30 days before the beginning of the performance rating cycle. In theory, it sounds good. In practice, virtually no one in government and most people in the private sector do not have performance standards in place a month before the previous rating cycle has ended. There is little, if any, benefit to be gained from this requirement. In fact, because much of what may be in the standards is based upon what is doable within the budget, and the Congress hasn’t passed a budget before the beginning of the fiscal year in many years, this requirement will result in no benefit. Verdict on this one: Politics
  • Biennial Justification of Positions. This provision would require agencies to justify all of their SES positions, including how the position will affect the agency mission, every 2 years. Doing so would add a significant bureaucratic requirement that is likely to result in nothing. Most agencies have SES positions running key organizations. Absent changes to those organizations, the position requirements do not change often. The verdict on this one: Politics
  • Extension of Probationary Period. Currently the SES probationary period is one year, during which the SES member can be removed quickly and easily with little means of challenging it. The same probationary period applies to most other Federal employees. An argument can be made that the type of work SES members do takes longer to assess and makes a longer probationary period a sound idea. Verdict: Accountability
  • Suspensions for 14 Days or Less. Currently SES members may be suspended for 15 days or more, but shorter suspensions are not allowed. This provision changes that to allow shorter suspensions. The addition of suspensions for 14 days or less may make agencies more likely to deal with conduct issues, although there is no evidence that it will happen. This one is close, but the verdict is: Accountability
  • Removal to “Promote the Efficiency of the Service.” This change deletes “misconduct” as a reason for removing SES and adds “efficiency of the service. The change brings the SES more in line with law that covers the rest of the workforce. Verdict on this one: Accountability
  • Mandatory Leave. This provision would (a) require SES members to take annual leave during the notice period prior to being removed and (b) prohibit them from accruing more leave during that time. It provides that the leave would be restored if the removal were later reversed. This is a bit of a guilty until proven innocent provision that appears to serve no useful purpose. Verdict: Politics

With 4 items being related to accountability and 3 related to politics, the bill tilts more toward accountability. If the 3 political provisions were removed, it could make it possible for agencies to more easily hold SES members more accountable for conduct and performance. That says nothing about whether agencies would actually use that authority. Our experience with probationary periods for SES and other employees does not lead me to believe we will suddenly see a rash of firings. As I said in my June 25th post, firing people is not the cure-all that some people think it is anyway. Overall, this bill is a vast improvement over the bill the House previously passed that would allow the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to fire SES members, “notwithstanding any other provision of law.



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