Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey: The Price of Mistrust

“There’s a world of difference between insisting on someone’s doing something and establishing an atmosphere in which that person can grow into wanting to do it.”  Fred Rogers (of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood)

Agencies are releasing their 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) results and many of them are not pretty. Here are results from a few agencies:

Looking at DoD as an example, the results for 2014 are lower than those for 2013 for more than half of the questions. The numbers in other agencies are not much better.  The FEVS questions cover a wide range of issues, but the ones that concern me most this year are those regarding agency leadership. Saying they are not pretty is an understatement. Here is how they look in agencies that represent 65% of the Federal work force:

2014 to 2013 FEVS Result Comparison

These numbers might lead someone to conclude that employees simply have poor opinions of their bosses, but the FEVS also includes questions regarding how employees view their supervisors and those numbers are significantly better. For example, the question “Overall, how good a job do you feel is being done by your immediate supervisor?” got the following positive responses:

  • Department of Defense   –   69.5%
  • DHS   –   63.1%
  • Interior   –   66.7%
  • Veterans Affairs   –   64.5%

Some of the difference can be attributed to familiarity. Employees see and talk with their supervisors every day, but may rarely (or never) have a conversation with higher ranking leaders. Regardless of the reason, the fact is that employees are reporting they do not have great trust and confidence in their leaders and the numbers are heading in the wrong direction. Some of the numbers are shocking. Only DoD was able to muster more than 50% positive responses for “I have a high level of respect for my organization’s senior leaders” and “Managers promote communication among different work units.” None of the agencies broke 60% on “Managers communicate the goals and priorities of the organization.” Think about that. How can an employee work to accomplish the agency’s goals if managers do not communicate what they are? Do we expect them to just stumble blindly into accomplishing them?

Not knowing where the agency wants to go is just one of the consequences of the trust and confidence issues the FEVS reveals. Mister Rogers was right – we have to create an environment where people want to work. A workforce that does not think much of its leaders can be pushed only so far. It will eventually have problems with productivity, recruiting high quality talent, customer service and other factors that are driven by employee engagement. Trust and confidence in leadership can also be a leading indicator that presages drops in other FEVS questions. If this trend continues, it is likely to drag all of the results even farther down. At some point, maintaining morale and productivity will become increasingly difficult. The downward spiral has to be stopped soon. Stopping it will take concerted actions by the key players. Here are a few ideas that should be considered.

  • Link manager and executive performance goals directly to agency strategies and objectives. One reason managers do not adequately communicate goals and priorities is that many of them do not have performance plans that are tied to the overall agency objectives. If manager performance plans always contained that type of linkage, managers would have a more personal stake in communicating those goals to their subordinates. Failure to communicate would decrease the probability that they could accomplish the objectives in their performance plans.
  • Conduct regular reviews of the organization’s progress in meeting goals. When I was HR Director for the Defense Logistics Agency, I implemented a monthly In-Progress Review for all of our critical programs. The first few were rough – they came in barely aware of the status of their programs and unprepared to discuss anything in detail. After a few painful meetings, people came in ready to discuss status, issues they were facing, support they might need, and any problems that needed to be addressed. We went from struggling to implement programs to being able to successfully develop and deploy new initiatives.
  • Create cross-functional and cross-organizational teams as a normal operating process. Too many organizations tolerate stovepipes that operate as though they are islands. Those stovepipes will never go away on their own. They are too comfortable for their inhabitants and give some managers a sense of control and power. Sharing information is viewed as weakening that power. The truth is that sharing information makes the entire organization more effective. Agencies can improve their performance by ensuring that program teams have representation from multiple organizations with diverse skill sets and views.
  • Invest in Leader Development programs for managers and executives. “Supervisory training” is common in Federal agencies – usually taking the form of a 40-hour or less course that is heavily focused on the HR rules and policies managers need to know. That training is typically focused on new supervisors. Less common are programs that focus on improving the skills of managers and executives. I have heard too many people tell me “Senior Executives don’t need training.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The roles of executives and supervisors are different. We often assume that a newly-minted SES has all of the skills he or she needs when the new SES is wondering if s/he is the right person for the job. If we want to see improvements in how senior leaders are perceived, we have to develop those leaders.
  • Do not exempt political appointees from leader development programs. Few agencies invest in training for political appointees. The Obama Administration has a program that provides appointees with an initial orientation, but once they get to their agencies, formal training is rare. Given the lack of government experience most appointees have, agencies should identify critical skills and conduct training to fill skill gaps.
  • Hire better leaders. This may seem a bit too obvious, but 30+ years in Federal HR tell me it does not always happen. The very best leader development strategy is to hire leaders who need less development. Senior manager and executive vacancies should be filled using processes that focus on rigorous assessment of skills. Most selection processes have such questionable validity that they are only a little better than random chance. For example, most agencies use unstructured interviews. The correlation coefficient (a 0.0 – 1.0 measure of the relationship between the assessment and performance) for unstructured interviews is typically reported by researchers as being in the .20 range. Structured interviews and other more valid assessments techniques are more likely to produce selectees who are able to perform.

Unless agencies begin to take steps such as these, it is unlikely we will see significant improvement in FEVS scores. They will continue to fall and the downward spiral will continue until the Federal government becomes a toxic workplace. We cannot afford to let that happen.

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Should We Bring Back the Rule of Three?

The rule of three was the target of reformers for years. It limited hiring consideration to the top three candidates on an OPM or Delegated Examining Unit certificate. The top three were identified by rating their applications, assigning scores, and then adding either 5 or 10 points for preference-eligible veterans. Compensably disabled veterans “floated” to the top of the list. Hiring managers generally hated the rule of three. If 100 people applied for a job, the hiring manager was limited to looking at the top three. If someone with veteran preference was #1 or #2 and a non-vet was #3, they could not be considered. Hiring managers thought their options were being restricted and often thought candidates who did not have the top three scores were better qualified than those that did. An MSPB Study issued in December 1995 determined those concerns were overstated, but concluded the rule of three was not effective and did more harm than good. They suggested adopting alternatives, including category rating. The President’s 2010 hiring reform directed agencies to stop using the rule of three and start using category ranking (which had been available to agencies as an option since it was included in the Chief Human Capital Offers Act of 2002 (itself part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002).

With category rating, applicants are placed in two or more groups. Applicants who are eligible for veteran preference are listed ahead of individuals who are not preference eligibles. With the exception of scientific and professional positions at GS–9 of the General Schedule (equivalent or higher), qualified preference-eligibles who have a compensable service-connected disability of 10 percent or are listed in the highest quality category. Selecting officials may select any applicant in the highest quality category. OPM published extensive guidance on category rating in its Delegated Examining Operations Handbook.

The use of category rating solved many of the problems created by the rule of three, but created its own set of issues. Points are not added to the scores of veterans, so a small number of veterans who may have benefitted enough from an additional 5 or 10 points may be at a disadvantage with category rating. MSPB’s 1995 study concluded predicted number would be small and showed a higher veteran selection rate for category rating compared to the rule of three.

Implementation Problems

The biggest problem with category rating is not the process itself, but how it is implemented.

When using category rating, it is critical that assessment of candidates be thorough, defensible, and based on criteria that will result in a group of candidates in the top group who could excel in the job. Otherwise it produces a gaggle of applicants whose skills may range from top-notch to not-so-hot. In a case of “be careful what you ask for” hiring managers are complaining that they are getting referral certificates with too many candidates. Too many candidates is almost as big a problem as too few, because it becomes difficult to interview all of them, reduce them to a manageable level and make a selection. Because veteran preference-eligible candidates are listed first in each category, hiring managers can often select from only the veterans on the list, even if there are better qualified non-veterans. The large numbers of referrals also raise expectations among those who are referred and create resentment when they are not selected. Non-veterans may believe they were unfairly excluded, while veterans may conclude their preference rights were violated. That happened with the rule of three too, but the numbers were much smaller and candidate expectations of selection were lower.

The move to category rating was intended to provide hiring managers with more flexibility, but the unintended outcomes do not serve agencies or applicants well. The good news is that the problem is not hard to fix and does not require any changes to hiring regulations or veteran preference.

Better Assessments Are the Solution

Category rating works effectively only when the top category is limited to those applicants who are clearly able to perform successfully in the job. The best way to identify that top group is using valid assessment instruments that clearly differentiate those candidates who are most likely to be successful from the rest. A narrowly defined top category ensures any candidate in the group would be able to successfully perform the duties of the job. When that happens, any veteran who “blocks the list” is someone who clearly has the skills for the job.

If agencies conduct better assessments and more narrowly define the best qualified category, the problems with category rating mostly go away. The number of candidates who are referred becomes more manageable. Veteran preference is preserved and hiring managers are assured referral lists include only those who are well qualified for the job. That should also help with the perceptions that veterans are being denied the preference they are guaranteed by law and the opposite perception that veterans are given too much preference.

When proper assessments are used, category rating is an effective tool that gives managers more candidates, candidates more opportunities for consideration, and veterans a higher selection rate. So my conclusion is that the rule of three really was as bad as we remember and it should remain dead.

Let’s Talk About DHS

 

DHS Seal

 

The Department of Homeland Security has been in the news recently regarding leadership vacancies. DHS being in the news is not news – the Department is in the news virtually every day. When I was Chief Human Capital Officer for DHS I got sick of reading the stories about DHS – everyone wants to write about the negatives and almost no one writes about the positives. Does DHS have morale issues? Yes. Does it have turnover issues? Yes, but not as bad as it might appear. Does DHS have issues with organization and command and control? Yes. Those and other issues lead some people to conclude DHS never should have been created and should be done away with. If that happened, the work DHS does would have to be done somewhere else. Regardless of how they are delivered, we need the services of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Border Patrol, Customs, immigration and citizenship services, and the aviation security services of TSA.  That means doing away with DHS would result in a massive government reorganization that would most likely be even messier than the one that created DHS.

I am never surprised when people say the solution to a problem is to reorganize. I am also never surprised when the reorganization fails to solve the problem. Reorganization can be a solution when organizational constructs are the source of a problem – otherwise they solve nothing. Many of the issues DHS faces are the result of the reorganization that created DHS. When the Homeland Security Act was passed, it was in response to post-September 11 fear. I will leave it to others to judge whether that was the best solution or not. What I do know is that the stand-up of DHS in 2003 was done in haste and without adequate planning. In a perfect world, Secretary Tom Ridge would have been appointed, given a transition planning team and adequate resources, and would have had a year or more to plan an orderly stand-up. He did not have that luxury, so the department was assembled on the fly. Given the circumstances under which they had to work, the people who stood up DHS did a remarkable job. They built a functioning department quickly and without any major disasters. In the years since, DHS has successfully executed a massive buildup to double the size of the Border Patrol, consolidated countless systems, dealt with H1N1 and terrorist threats, responded to the BP oil spill, made tremendous strides in improving management integration within the Department, arrested more than 12,000 child sex tourists, predators and child pornographers, deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants (increasing the number from 88,000 in 2008 to almost 200,000 in 2010), responded to dozens of natural disasters, and innumerable other accomplishments that few people hear about. Here are a few more of those accomplishments (sourced from the 2015 DHS Budget in Brief):

  • The Department of Homeland Security has dedicated historic levels of personnel, technology, and infrastructure to border security to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants and illicit contraband while fostering legal trade and travel across both our North and Southwest borders and at our air and sea ports of entry. Every day, DHS personnel pre-screen 6 million air travelers, screen 1.8 million passengers and their baggage for explosives and prohibited items, patrol 4.5 million square miles of U.S. waterways, and screen 100 percent of cargo and vehicles entering the country from Mexico and Canada.
  • Annually, DHS personnel naturalize three quarters of a million new citizens, assist over 500 thousand employers in determining the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S., process 168 million visa and border crossing card holders, and process more than 300 million travelers entering the U.S. by land, sea, and air. DHS secures $2.4 trillion dollars of trade, and enforces U.S. laws that protect health and safety, welcome legitimate travelers, and facilitates the flow of goods and services essential to our Nation’s economy.
  • Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processed $2.38 trillion in trade and nearly 25 million cargo containers through our nation’s POEs.
  • In FY 2013, CBP officers conducted more than 24,000 seizures due to intellectual property rights violations and prevented $1.7 billion in counterfeit goods from entering the U.S. economy, representing a 38-percent increase in value over FY 2012.
  • CBPOs and Border Patrol agents seized nearly 4.4 million pounds of narcotics, a 2-percent increase from FY 2012, and more than $106.0 million in unreported currency.
  • In Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made 40,218 criminal arrests while seizing $1.3 billion in U.S. currency and other monetary instruments, 1.6 million pounds of narcotics and other dangerous drugs, and 58,672 weapons. ICE responded to 1,424,320 alienage inquiries from other Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies through ICE’s Law Enforcement Support Center.
  • The Transportation Security Administration screened approximately 2 billion carry-on bags at checkpoints and more than 425 million checked bags, preventing approximately 111,000 dangerous prohibited items including explosives, firearms, flammables/irritants, and weapons from being carried onto planes in FY 2013.
  • The United States Coast Guard responded to 17,721 Search and Rescue incidents, saving 3,263 lives and protecting $44 million in property in FY 2013.
  • The Secret Service made 46,132 arrests for counterfeit, cyber crimes, identity theft, access device fraud, mortgage fraud, and protective intelligence cases.

So let’s talk about whether DHS should exist or not. The anti-DHS camp argues DHS  is too big. It is disorganized. It intrudes too much into people’s lives. It is a waste of money. We would be better off if the components of DHS were put back where they came from. The pro-DHS camp says DHS is still coming together as a Department. It needs time to get itself together and operate smoothly and has made tremendous progress in recent years. It provides a means of integrating homeland security efforts in a way that did not exist when the components were spread across multiple Departments. And it is providing services such as those described above that most people are not aware of.

Prior to my appointment as DHS CHCO, I probably leaned more toward the anti-DHS camp. Then I saw what it is like from the inside. My view of DHS changed completely, and now I strongly believe DHS is a valuable and necessary part of the Federal government. I also believe doing away with it would generate far more problems that it would solve, and would make the US less secure. Here are three reasons why:

  • There is little disagreement that there is a strong relationship between many of the missions of DHS, such as customs and border protection, aviation security, immigration enforcement and citizenship services. The intent in creating a single department was to make improve interactions between the people carrying out those missions. You may not hear about that in the news, but DHS has significantly improved how its components interact. As DHS becomes less stovepiped, interactions between the components will improve and its efforts will be far more efficient and effective.
  • A multi-agency reorganization will increase the problems, not solve them. Doing away with DHS would result in reorganizations in the Departments of Treasury, Transportation, Energy, Justice, Agriculture, Defense and Health and Human Services, as well as the General Services Administration. It would cost money, divert attention from the mission, and have no guarantee of improving anything.
  • Congress created DHS – it should help fix it. After spending most of my career in the Department of Defense, I was surprised to find that Congressional oversight of DHS was so disorganized. For much of its mission, Defense works with the House and Senate Armed Services and Appropriations Committees and their subcommittees. That allows Congress to provide oversight in a cohesive and effective way. When the Homeland Security Act was passed, the House and Senate did not assign oversight to the Homeland Security Committees of the House and Senate. They kept it the way it was. That means DHS is overseen by 92 committees and subcommittees and 27 additional caucuses, commissions and groups. On September 11, 2014, former DHS Secretaries Ridge, Chertoff and Napolitano signed a letter urging the House and Senate to do something about the oversight mess, saying “This is a matter of critical importance to national security on which there is broad bipartisan agreement, and it remains the only major recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that ten years later has not been acted upon.” They were being polite. In fact, not only have the House and Senate not acted upon the recommendation, they actually increased the number of committees and subcommittees overseeing DHS. In a separate letter, more than 30 homeland security experts, including the co-Chairs of the 9/11 Commission, made a similar plea. They said “The tangle of overlapping committees leads to political paralysis, increasing the nation’s vulnerability to multiple threats, including cyber-attacks, biohazards, and small boats and planes carrying unknown cargo.” They also pointed out that “During the first year of the 111th Congress, DHS spent approximately 66 work-years just responding to questions from Congress. A significant portion of the millions of dollars it took that year to answer more than 11,000 letters, provide more than 2,000 briefings, and make available 232 witnesses at 166 hearings, could have been better spent directly carrying out DHS’s core mission of ensuring a safer, more secure America.” Putting DHS back where it came from would only make the problem worse.

I am not making the argument that DHS is perfect, but we should give credit where credit is due and recognize the progress DHS has made. We should also think very carefully about using a massive government reorganization to solve the problems of a previous massive government reorganization. We should also resolve to focus on making constructive suggestions for improving DHS rather than constantly trying to tear them down. Being inside DHS, I know that the barrage of criticism has an effect on the workforce. Perhaps morale would improve if DHS were not the target of so much negative press and political rhetoric.

 

Tagged , , , ,

Do We Need a Million Fewer Federal Employees?

The Washington Post published an interesting opinion piece on August 29, suggesting the best way to have a better and smaller government is to hire another million Federal employees between now and 2035. The author makes the argument that many Federal programs are operated by state and local government, for-profit contractors and not-for-profit grantees. He also says moving much of that work back to direct performance by Federal employees could reduce cost, generate economies of scale, and result in overall government spending going down. He makes the argument that the number of Federal employees relative to the population of the United States is far lower than it was in 1965. To help make the point that there are too many contractors, the article also says the Department of Homeland Security has more contractors than Federal employees, citing a report from 2010.

DHS Does Not Have 200,000 Contractors

I was Chief Human Capital Officer for DHS in 2010. The Post article was correct when it said DHS reported it had more contractors than Feds. What is missing is that DHS later corrected that number and it actually had less than 100K contractors.

Hire a Million or Fire a Million?

The problem with some of these numbers is that we can make them say whatever we want them to say, based upon our biases and how we analyze and present the data. Using employment data we can argue we should hire a million Feds or that we should fire a million Feds or anything in between. The “hire another million Feds” argument goes like this: We currently have 2,038,000 non-postal Federal employees. The current U.S. population is 316,000,000. That means we have 155 residents per Federal employee. In 1965, we had a population of 193,000,000 and 1,900,000 Federal employees, for a ratio of 102 residents per employee. We have far fewer employees per U.S. resident than we had 49 years ago, so we have shrunk the Federal workforce considerably, at least when in terms of the Fed-to-resident ratio. The Office of Management and Budget cites similar numbers in their Analytical Perspectives on the FY 2013 budget submission, going back to the 1950s, when there were 92 workers for every resident. OMB used the numbers to point out that the Federal workforce is becoming far more highly skilled, but is not growing in real numbers. The Post article argues that the government should hire another million employees by 2035 and transition services back to the government from states, localities, contractors and non-profit grantees. A million new Feds is a nice number and it makes for an interesting headline, but it does not necessarily make good public policy.

Whether we believe the government needs more or fewer people, we should make the case based on the work that needs to be done, the benefits to the taxpayers, and the most efficient way to get it done. The workforce to population comparison does not do that. It takes two data points – population and Federal jobs – links them as top line numbers, then proceeds to argue that the number should be higher today because the ratio has changed. The problem with that is that our nation, our expectations of government, the world, the nature of work, technology, and virtually everything else has changed. Comparing the size of the 1950s or 1960s workforce with the 2014 workforce at a macro level does not tell us anything that we can use to determine if the number is too high, too low, or where it ought to be. When we look at the number of employees, the number of contractors or the number of grantees, we need to dig a lot deeper in the numbers before we make public policy.

The belief that government employment has failed to keep pace with the population is not new. OMB’s Analytical Perspectives addressed the issue directly –

“Fifty years ago, most white-collar Federal employees performed clerical tasks, such as posting Census figures in ledgers and retrieving taxpayer records from file rooms. Today their jobs are vastly different, requiring advanced skills to serve a knowledge-based economy. Professionals such as doctors, engineers, scientists, statisticians, and lawyers now make up a large portion of the Federal workforce. More than half (55 percent) of Federal workers work in the nine highest-paying occupation groups as judges, engineers, scientists, nuclear plant inspectors, etc., compared to about a third (33 percent) of private sector workers in those same nine highest paying occupation groups. In contrast, 45 percent of private sector workers work in the seven lowest-paying occupation groups as cooks, janitors, service workers, clerks, laborers, manufacturing workers, etc. About 26 percent of Federal workers work in those seven lowest-paying occupation groups. Between 1981 and 2011, the proportion of the Federal workforce in clerical occupations fell from 19.4 percent to 5.1 percent of the workforce, and the proportion of blue-collar workers fell from 22.0 percent to 9.7 percent.”

OMB rightly pointed out that the workforce of today is far different from what we had in the 1950s and 1960s. Most readers are probably too young to remember, but in 1965 most offices were full of clerks. In fact, when the Classification Act was passed in 1949, the work force was mostly clerical. A Washington Post article from January 2014 put the number at three quarters of the workforce. (In the 1950s we had about 400,000 blue collar employees, so it is more likely that 3/4 of white collar employees were clerks.)

Where did all of those clerks go?

1950s and 1960s offices were full of clerks doing paperwork. They were pulling paper files from file cabinets. They were processing personnel actions using paper documents and paper official personnel folders. They did bookkeeping (using paper ledgers), they worked at telephone switchboards. And they typed. On typewriters. That work is mostly gone due to automation. People input their own work on the computers sitting on their desks. The idea that we would pay someone to write something with a pen and paper and then hand it off to another person to use a typewriter or word processing software to finish it is a relic of the past. The idea of accounting technicians by the thousands doing double entry bookkeeping in paper ledgers is just as dead. Typewriters and telephone switchboards are museum pieces. The nature of work in the Federal government has changed so radically that comparing top line 1950s and 1960s employment ratios to today tells us nothing. The more accurate comparison of 1950s and 1960s government to 2014 is the white collar nonclerical workforce, because the role of government is defined far more by higher-skilled and higher-paying occupations than by clerical and blue collar jobs.  I say that because most clerical work is done to facilitate other , more substantive, work. Most blue collar work is either maintaining facilities (another example of facilitating other work) or repairing boats, ships and aircraft. If we correct for the number of blue collar and clerical positions in government in the 1950s and 1960s, we get an entirely different view of the ratio of employees to residents. I have included a chart with all the numbers , including the resident to non clerical white collar employee ratio at the end of this post for those folks who want to see details.

In 1955 we had 503 residents per non-clerical white collar employee – today we have 183. The workforce performing substantive government work has grown a lot. As technology moved into government, it displaced clerical workers. The white collar workforce fluctuated over the years, but the number of non-clerical white collar workers has continued to grow. In just the last 5 years, the number of Federal employees started at 2,038,000, rose for a few years, and is now back to 2,038,00, yet the size of the clerical workforce has dropped from 151,000 in 2009 to 123,000 today and the blue collar workforce has dropped from 207,000 to 189,000. Using the comparison of nonclerical white collar work in the past and today, one could make the argument we have a million too many Federal employees. It is an absurd idea, but the idea of laying off a million Feds and cutting the budget more than $108 billion is about as realistic as hiring a million. Neither is going to happen, because neither is based on a realistic analysis of the work that needs to be done, the political environment, our economic conditions, or any of countless other data points that must go into any discussion of the right size of the workforce.

 

The Details

Federal Employment vs Population 2

 

Is it All or Nothing on General Schedule Reform?

Last week the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report on the General Schedule. The report, “OPM Needs to Improve the Design, Management, and Oversight of the Federal Classification System” outlines eight key attributes of a modern classification system and assesses the degree to which the General Schedule aligns with those attributes. The eight are:

  • Internal equity. All employees with comparable qualifications and responsibilities for their respective occupations are assigned the same grade level.
  • External equity. All employees with comparable qualifications and responsibilities are assigned grade levels and corresponding pay ranges comparable to the nonfederal sector.
  • Transparency. A comprehensible and predictable system that employees, management, and taxpayers can understand.
  • Flexibility. The ease and ability to modify the system to meet agency-specific needs and mission requirements, including modifying rates of pay for certain occupations to attract a qualified workforce, within the framework of a uniform government-wide system.
  • Adaptability. The ease and ability to conduct a periodic, fundamental review of the entire classification system that enables the system to evolve as the workforce and workplace changes.
  • Simplicity. A system that enables interagency mobility and comparisons with a rational number of occupations and clear career ladders with meaningful differences in skills and performance, as well as a system that can be cost-effectively maintained and managed.
  • Rank-in-position. A classification of positions based on mission needs and then hiring individuals with those qualifications.
  • Rank-in-person. A classification of employees based on their unique skills and abilities.

GAO recognized that some of these attributes appear to be in conflict with one another. For example, classifying positions based upon rank-in-position and based upon rank-in-person appear to be polar opposites. GAO also criticizes the Office of Personnel Management for not having adequate oversight of GS classification, not updating standards frequently enough, and not adequately resourcing the program. OPM partially concurred with most of GAO’s recommendations, but did not concur on the issue of developing a strategy to systematically track and prioritize updates to occupational standards.

Both GAO and OPM positions have merit. GAO is correct that the GS system is outdated and overly complex. They are right that OPM has not adequately resourced the program. They are right that OPM should address the shortcomings of the GS system sooner rather than later. OPM is correct in saying it does not need a new process to get classification standards written and updated more regularly. OPM also said it has only 6 full time classification policy staff. GAO says OPM has to make tradeoffs the same as any other agency.

That last point is one that I think is important. Yes, OPM has to make tradeoffs. I have not hesitated to criticize OPM when it is off track. In this case, I think they are in a no-win situation. The agency’s recent budget requests show OPM’s appropriated dollars are significantly less than they have been in the past. The agency operates more on revolving funds than appropriations. They also have trust fund money that covers management of retirement and insurance programs. Those color-of-money distinctions are important, because they limit the number of people OPM can devote to policy and oversight work. While the agency has over 5,000 employees, less than 20% of them can be assigned policy, oversight and agency management tasks. That puts OPM in the position of playing management whack-a-mole with priorities. If they decide to devote far more resources to classification, they will have to come from other programs, leading to those programs being under resourced.

GAO’s Recommendations

GAO’s report established a good set of criteria for an effective classification system. It also made three recommendations for executive branch action:

  • Working through the CHCO Council, and in conjunction with key stakeholders such as the Office of Management and Budget, unions, and others, should use prior studies and lessons learned from demonstration projects and alternative systems to examine ways to make the GS system’s design and implementation more consistent with the attributes of a modern, effective classification system. To the extent warranted, develop a legislative proposal for congressional consideration.
  • Develop cost-effective mechanisms to oversee agency implementation of the classification system as required by law.
    • Develop a strategy to systematically track and prioritize updates to occupational standards.
    • Develop a strategy that will enable OPM to more effectively and routinely monitor agencies’ implementation of classification standards.

The first recommendation is the most critical, because it could negate the need for at least one of the other two recommendations. In recent years the CHCO Council has become an effective means of driving government human capital policy. A CHCO Council working group, partnering with OMB and with unions (at the national level), could develop a set of policy recommendations that would make the current classification process far less complex, without changing the underlying laws. That last point is critical – the likelihood of significant Civil Service reform that is enacted by the Congress is remote, due to the combination of Congressional dysfunction and a lack of appetite for Civil Service reform.

Reform Does Not Require Congress to Act

How would we dramatically change GS classification without rewriting the law? Most people think the highly complex GS system is entirely a creation of the Classification Act of 1949 (as amended). It is true that the Classification Act created the General Schedule and defines each of the 15 GS grade levels. Much of the complexity (23 occupational families and 420 job series) comes from policy decisions made by OPM and others in the 65 years since the Classification Act passed. There is no legal requirement to have 420 job series. OPM creates new series when it determines they are necessary, is asked by the White House to do so, gets statutory direction, or they are requested by agencies. A great example is Cyber Security. There is a lot of pressure (including in the intro of the GAO report) to create a Cyber Security job series. OPM has not done so, and with good reason. At the Department of Homeland Security we had a need for more Cyber Security professionals. They were not in a single job series and could not be. Cyber Security is a complex field that includes Computer Scientists, Network and Systems Engineers, Security Specialists, Digital Forensics Specialists, Program Managers, Intelligence Specialists, and about 10 more categories. A single job family cannot address so many different positions that have radically different duties and qualifications requirements. In fact, GAO points out that the use of 420 job series adds unnecessary complexity to the GS system.

Where we need to go is in the opposite direction. The number of job series should be reduced by at least half, and more likely by three quarters. One reason OPM cannot maintain current standards for all of the jobs is that there are too many of them. GAO also points out that the stove piping of jobs into narrow series may hamper career growth. So – we have too many series, we cannot maintain the classification standards because of that, and the number limits agency flexibility on reassigning staff. It also makes for an arduous and overly complex hiring process for applicants from outside government.

If the number of job series is reduced to a more manageable number (I suggest no more than 100), we could achieve most of the objectives of GAO’s eight attributes of a modern classification system. Even some of the apparently conflicting attributes can be addressed. For example, on the surface it appears we cannot have a system that includes both rank-in-person and rank-in-position attributes. But we can. Take a look at the Research Grade Evaluation Guide (RGEG) published by OPM. The RGEG includes 4 classification factors:

  1. Research Assignment
  2. Supervisory Controls
  3. Guidelines and Originality, and
  4. Contributions, Impact, and Stature

The RGEG recognizes that “Work commonly expands commensurate with the researcher’s motivation, capability, and creativity.” Evaluation of factor 4 is based upon the researcher’s accomplishments rather than a rigid standard based upon the job itself. The RGEG recognizes that it is difficult to separate the person from the work the person does. OPM could use a similar approach to incorporate both rank-in-person and rank-in-position into new classification standards. The RGEG also covers research in many fields – there is not an RGEG for Physics, one for Chemistry, one for medicine, etc. OPM could use a similar approach with multi-series standards to dramatically reduce the number of classification standards it has to write and maintain. For example, a STEM Grade Evaluation Guide could cover many STEM positions. An Administrative Grade Evaluation Guide could cover financial management, human resources, procurement and other administrative positions.

Benefits of Administrative Reform

Administrative reform is faster, more achievable, and less likely to veer off into Fed bashing than a statutory solution might be. It maintains stability in the legal framework of the Civil Service, yet addresses the Adaptability feature in GAO’s 8 attributes. It achieves Simplicity, adopts both Rank-in-Person and Rank-in-Position attributes, and should also improve Internal Equity. It certainly demonstrates Flexibility as well. While we may not be able to get to a completely modern classification system without Congressional action, we can certainly improve on what we have today. By pursuing an administrative rather than statutory solution, OPM can begin to rapidly address many of the shortcomings of the existing system. The points of view of key stakeholders, such as unions and the Senior Executives Association, can be taken into account, as can those of good government advocates such as the Partnership for Public Service and the National Academy of Public Administration. The CHCO Council can drive the process, ensuring the resulting changes are implementable and consistent with accomplishing agency missions. Rather than waiting for the day when Civil Service reform might be achievable in Congress, we can act now. Why wait??

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 724 other followers