Leading America’s Workforce: Did President Obama Hit the Mark?

On December 9, President Obama addressed a group of Senior Executive Service members to thank them for their service and outline 3 initiatives to recognize customer service and improve development opportunities for aspiring leaders. The speech got a mixed response, with some people saying it was on target and others, including my friend, Federal News Radio’s Francis Rose, saying the President’s reform plan may make the problems worse.

President Obama offered 3 specific ideas for SES reform:

  • White House Leadership Development Program for Future Senior Career Executives. Intended to increase mobility and provide SES members and SES candidates with experience on high impact programs outside their agencies, this program has the potential to make mobility far more real than it has been. The original intent of the SES was to have executives who were mobile and whose skills could be applied across government. That intent has never been realized, even though it has been at the top of most lists of reform ideas for years. Finally having a program that has the backing of the White House is a good thing and this program may be the first to get real results.
  • White House Advisory Group on SES Reform. While we have had more groups looking at SES reform than I care to remember, they have generally consisted almost entirely of academics, business leaders with little government experience, and politicians. The new Advisory Group will include current SES, SL and ST members, as well as aspiring SES candidates. We have known for years that the best people to advise on improving business processes are the people who do the work. Having these folks involved in the Advisory Group gives me hope that it may actually produce results.
  • Customer Service Awards Program. The White House says this program will “focus SES and employees on outcomes and improving the quality, timeliness, and effectiveness of the services they provide to the American people and American businesses….” We have had awards programs in government for many years, including some that focus on customer service. The difference here is that this program will raise the awards to the agency head and Presidential level. That is a big difference from other programs – a difference that should make it more likely to succeed.

I have heard from many people who said the President should have spoken to the SES sooner. I agree. It would have been great to see the President address the senior career leaders in his first year in office. But – the President is still the President and any time we can get this or any President of the United States to pay attention to the needs of our career workforce, I welcome it. Every Administration learns the lesson that nothing they want to accomplish can be done without the good work of the 2 million career Federal employees. President Obama commented on how surprised people who come from industry are when they realize the Federal workforce is filled with talented, hard working and innovative people. Those of us who have been in that workforce know that the talented Feds far, far outnumber the stereotypical bureaucrats.

So – did the President’s speech hit the mark? Yes. He may be a little late to the game, but he came with strong ideas and is willing to put the strength of the White House behind them. I am looking forward to seeing the results.


Ready, Set, Wait!

Fiscal year 2015 began 65 days ago, but the Federal government still does not have an FY2015 budget. Yet again, agencies have gone through one sixth of the year with no idea how much money they will have for the year. Yes – we have a continuing resolution (CR), but agencies are severely restricted by a CR. The Congressional Research Service published an excellent 2010 paper on the effects of a CR. Those effects make good management a challenge, if not an outright impossibility. In a recent speech covered by the Washington Post, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said ““This is the fifth time in five years that Congress has been unable to do their basic business: pass a budget on time so that we can plan.”

Inability to plan is only one of the outcomes of a CR, but it is a big one. How does an agency make any kind of execution plans when they have no idea how much money will be appropriated when Congress finally passes a budget (or a full year CR)? We often hear people complaining that political and career leaders in government do not manage effectively and are not good planners, with the annual end-of-year much to spend money put forward as evidence. I have to challenge that complaint. They are not allowed to manage their budgets. When an agency has no idea what its budget will be, even months into the year, they cannot make the kind of budget decisions and tradeoffs that would allow them to run the agency’s business the way a reasonable person would. How can an agency make decisions regarding the number of permanent staff they will have, or contracts they will award, when the budget is up in the air? The situation is made worse by the apportionment of the annual budget that is required by a CR. An agency that expects to get $12 billion in the full year will most likely get $1 billion per month during a CR. That means contracts that may not be awarded if the agency cannot obligate enough money to cover them.

The spending rush at the end of the year has been driven in large part in recent years by the budget mess. Take this year as an example. If we end up with a budget by the end of the calendar year, a quarter of the fiscal year will already have passed. Agencies will get top line budget numbers, followed by detailed numbers weeks later. By the time those numbers filter down through the agency hierarchies, we will probably be in February or March. Only then can agencies make final decisions on such matters as hiring and contracting. Once they have their dollars for the year, they can make hiring decisions. We know how long the hiring process takes. We also know how long the contracting process takes. An agency that does not know its budget until February or March is most likely going to be awarding contracts in the summer or fall. And then they will be at the end of the fiscal year and getting berated for spending too much money in the last quarter.

We can beat up agencies for the timing of their spending, but there will be no end to that practice until we get back to starting the fiscal year with a budget. When that happens and the waiting game ends, we can hold agencies accountable for their planning and spending schedules. Until then, we all get to wait.

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Thank You Federal Employees

It is Thanksgiving week and before everyone heads out of the office to take a well-deserved holiday, I want to give thanks for our Federal workforce. Fed-bashing may be a popular sport in some places, but not in my home. I believe that majority of Federal employees do a great job, care about their work, do more than is necessary, support their co-workers in times or need, and provide tremendous benefit to the American people.

Let’s look at just a few things Federal employees do.

They support our troops. The Department of Defense relies heavily upon 700K Federal employees to provide supplies, rebuild ships, aircraft and other equipment, provide IT, financial management and personnel support, conduct intelligence work, and countless other tasks that enable our men and women in uniform to carry out their missions.

They collect revenue. Some folks might wonder why I would be thankful for tax collectors, but I like roads, our military, the social security program, and many other aspects of what our government does. None of that happens without the taxes collected by the IRS.

They protect our food supply, environment and medicines. Federal workers inspect our food, promote agriculture, provide assistance to small and large farms, regulate pollutants, review new drugs to ensure their efficacy and safety, and manage over 200 million acres of National Forests and Wilderness Areas.

They preserve and operate our National Parks. The US has a spectacular array of National Parks, ranging from Yosemite to Yellowstone and as unique as Wolf Trap, the only National Park for the Performing Arts.

They ensure we can travel safely by air, rail and highways. They forecast the weather and help us understand when dangerous storms can put us at risk, manage fisheries, explore outer space, and conduct groundbreaking medical and scientific research.

They respond to natural and man-made disasters, protect our borders, promote legitimate commerce and protect American businesses and consumer from counterfeit goods and currency.

They run the Social Security program, Medicare, and Veterans programs, along with many more that are too numerous to list in one blog post.

I don’t think we take time to say thank you often enough. We learned following the bitter years of the Viet Nam war that we can honor the warrior even when we do not want the war. The same applies to the Federal workforce. Whether we think our Federal government is too big, too small or just right, we can respect Federal workers for what they do for us every day and say Thank You.

So this Thanksgiving week – Thank you Federal employees. Thank you for you loyalty, your dedication, your hard work, and the difference you make in America. I appreciate it – and you – very much.



The Office of Redundancy Office

Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald is making news with his plans to reorganize the Department of Veterans Affairs. Secretary McDonald plans to create a Chief Customer Service Officer and VA-wide customer service organization to better provide services to Veterans and is exploring options for shared services “to improve efficiency, reduce costs and increase productivity across VA.” The Secretary’s moves are a good start. VA, like most large agencies, has more than its share of redundant organizations.

Redundancy has many costs and not all of them are financial. Here are just a few:

Customer service suffers. When more than one part of an organization offers similar services, how do customers know where to go? If they do not have external customers, how do internal folks know where to go? When a customer starts in one place but needs to be in another, how is the customer handed off? If the organization have a mechanism for handoffs that is seamless, there is not a problem, but seamless handoffs are rare.

Work expands to match the number of people. Where I have personally witnessed extreme redundancy, the people in the organizations created work processes that filled up their time. Rather than focusing on the most efficient processes, they added steps to justify their existence. At the Defense Logistics Agency, before we consolidated HR services, we had one operating HR office that had the highest number of HR Specialists per customer in the entire Agency. Their average time to fill jobs was 8 months. You could give birth to new employees almost as fast as they could hire them. When we started examining the problems, we found everyone wanted to have a hand in every step of the hiring process. Rather than having an abundance of people producing exceptional results, we had too many people chasing too little work and complaining that they were overworked. The sad fact was that they were overworked, because they had created such abysmal processes that they did not have the resources to execute them. The solution was not more resources, it was fewer people, fewer dollars, and fewer organizations.

Redundant organizations require redundant management structures. Every organization has a management structure to support it. Using HR offices as an example, at DLA we had 7 operating HR offices and a central processing office, each with an HR Officer, division chiefs and support staff. When their work was consolidated into 2 centers, we were able to eliminate 6 GS-15 jobs, numerous GS-14s, and a number of support jobs. Each manager wants to have his or her own priorities, their own style of leading, and their own reporting processes. In today’s dollars, the cost of a GS-15 (with fringe benefits) is about $185K. Just 6 of them cost more than $1.1 million dollars. In a Department like Veterans Affairs, the number of redundant management structures would be significant and the benefits from streamlining them would be tremendous.

Costs are too high. Redundant management structures are not the only way redundancy adds costs. When more than one organization is responsible for similar work, they often create new and incompatible systems, have different training requirements, assess performance in different ways, and have facilities that cost far more than a single organization might need. Every box on an org chart has a cost associated with it. The greater the number of boxes, the greater the cost. At the Department of Homeland Security, we found one of the highest costs was for information technology. Every component (and some subcomponents) had their own systems. For example, we had multiple Learning Management Systems. Those redundant systems cost the Department at least $5 million per year more than a single system would cost. DHS had more than 400 HR systems of various kinds. The Department is making good progress on reducing the number and has a handle on the problem, but the problem is repeated in much of the government.

Self-preservation becomes the enemy of efficiency, change and everything good. Organizations and people in them are remarkably good at ensuring their jobs continue to exist. Solutions that begin with “let’s consolidate these 8 offices into 2″ do not usually get a warm welcome. People protect turf, they protect budgets, and they protect FTE. Rather than focusing on large-scale solutions, we find them trying to fix problems within their own box on the org chart. The result is a government that costs more than it should for the services it provides. As we found at DLA, many of those people were overworked at the same time their customers were getting substandard service.

I have written before about our accomplishments in DLA HR. We reduced our costs by 28% while dramatically improving the quality of service we provided. To accomplish that we had eliminate redundancy. That meant taking some difficult steps, including eliminating jobs, closing offices and changing how work got done. We did everything we could to give people whose jobs were eliminated soft landings, and were successful in placing most of them. In the end, the organization delivered far better service to its customers, customer satisfaction soared, and morale of the remaining staff increased to the highest level in the entire Agency.

VA Secretary McDonald is on the right track with his move to shared support services. If more agencies did the same, we could see millions of dollars saved or shifted from support services to agency missions, and we could say goodbye to the Office of Redundancy Office.

Why So Few People Trust the Merit Promotion Program

In the 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) only 35.4% of respondents agreed (26.2%) or strongly agreed (9.2%) with the statement “Promotions in my work unit are based on merit.” 36.5% disagreed or strongly disagreed. Large agencies such as Defense (31.1%) , Veterans Affairs (30.2%) and Homeland Security (20.7%) scored even lower. Most agencies scored positive responses in the 30% – 40% range, although 10 had scores above 40% and 6 (Commerce, NASA, OMB, OPM, FTC and FERC) had more than 50% positive responses. Only 3 questions on the FEVS had lower positive responses. The numbers are not surprising. A study by the Merit Systems Protection Board in 2001 revealed that almost half of Federal employees believed they had unfairly been passed over for a promotion at some point in their career. A 2007 MSPB Career Advancement Survey showed 84% of employees blamed “Preselection” for not being selected and 72% said selections are based on “who they know.”

The nature of the merit promotion program is such that it is unlikely we will ever see employees routinely believing selections for promotions are based on merit, even though merit is the core of the modern Civil Service. There are several factors that drive the perceptions of unfairness:

  • Most people think they are above average. I wrote last year about the surprising prevalence of illusory superiority – the tendency to underestimate our own weaknesses and overstate our own abilities. With most job announcements resulting in one selection and many rejections, the reality of that math runs head on into our biased self-perception. We believe the selectee clearly was not as good, so the system or the boss must be biased.
  • The myth of “Preselection.” One of MSPB’s key findings in their 2001 report was “More often than not, before a merit promotion opportunity is announced, supervisors believe they know which employee in their organization would be the best person for the job and most of the time they select that person. Supervisors told us that during the past 2 years, 54 percent of the time they had already identified one of their own employees whom they thought they would promote into the vacancy. They also told us that 80 percent of the time they actually selected that person to fill their vacancy. Moreover, the vast majority of supervisors said that they were very satisfied with the people they chose to fill their vacancies.” If you ask most Federal employees, they will tell you their own stories about preselection. It is viewed as a commonplace occurrence because it is. So why do I call it a myth? Because there is nothing illegal or unethical about it. A manager with a vacancy who does not have a general idea about which of his/her employees would be best suited for it is probably not much of a manager. What would that manager read in a resume or hear in an interview that would trump years of working with and observing the performance of their team? There is no Prohibited Personnel Practice (PPP) that covers preselection. In fact, OPM provides for something that smells a lot like preselection in the Delegated Examining Operations Handbook – it is called a “Name Request.” A Name Request gives an applicant an advantage in the case of tie breaking. Rather than using normal tie breaking procedures, the subject of the Name Request goes on the list. There is something similar to Preselection that is a PPP. An agency cannot manipulate the process to make certain an applicant makes it on a referral list. PPP #6 says an agency cannot “grant any preference or advantage not authorized by law, rule, or regulation to any employee or applicant for employment (including defining the scope or manner of competition or the requirements for any position) for the purpose of improving or injuring the prospects of any particular person for employment.” Knowing who you might like to select is fine – cooking the process to make certain it happens is illegal.
  • Best Qualified is in the eye of the beholder. We all know that the stated intention of the Merit Promotion program (or any hiring program) is to find the best qualified candidate. One of the statutory Merit System Principles is “selection and advancement should be determined solely on the basis of relative ability, knowledge and skills, after fair and open competition which assures that all receive equal opportunity.” The concept seems so simple that applicants and observers are often surprised to find the selectee is not the person they would have called “best qualified.” When that happens, it is easy to blame it on bias, favoritism or bad judgment by the selecting official. There is a simpler explanation that is less sinister – the selecting official’s view of what constitutes “Best Qualified” is not the same as yours. Here is a simple example. Two supervisors are filling the same type of job. The jobs are the same series, title and grade level. Supervisor A has 5 other employees who are all technically superb, but are not particularly innovative. Supervisor B has 5 other employees who are technically superb and innovative, but they are not very good at customer service. Both supervisors get the same list of applicants. Supervisor A sees that “Betty Lou” has good technical abilities and a strong record of innovative solutions to problems. Supervisor B sees that “Bobby Ray” has good technical abilities and has received awards for customer service. Supervisor A is going to believe Betty Lou is the Best Qualified, while supervisor B is going to see Bobby Ray as Best Qualified. Neither is wrong, because their organizational needs are different. Another common example of differing perceptions of Best Qualified is the balance between technical expertise and other skills. One supervisor may believe technical ability trumps everything, while another believes interpersonal skills are equally important. There is not a right or wrong answer – just two views of what makes someone Best Qualified.

As bad as the perceptions are now, they are actually improving. MSPB’s research shows a dramatic decrease in perceptions of unfairness in the process over the last 20 years. I believe some of that progress is based upon the increased transparency in the hiring process that has been brought about by use of automated tools for candidate evaluation and the virtual elimination of the secret crediting plans for candidate evaluation that were common in the past. When applicants are provided with more information, they have a better understanding of the process. Another key factor in confidence in the Merit Promotion program is confidence in senior leaders. Agencies whose senior leaders receive high marks from the workforce in FEVS also have higher confidence in the fairness of the promotion process. That tells me the keys to more credible promotion programs are quality leaders and increased transparency in every step of the promotion process. Transparency can take the form of clear and valid applicant questionnaires, vacancy announcements that provide real insight into what the agency is looking for, and better interview processes. One step that few agencies take is asking peers of the job being filled to participate in the interview process.

Illusory superiority and the varying perceptions of what makes someone Best Qualified probably mean we are unlikely to ever get to the point where large majorities of employees believe promotions are based on merit. That does not mean we should stop trying. The experiences of those agencies with 50% or more positive ratings on their promotion outcomes gives me hope that we can at least get the Federal government to the point where there are more employees who trust the process than employees who do not. That would be a big step forward from where we are today.




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