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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The Good News from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey

On October 24, the Office of Personnel Management released the government wide results for the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). OPM’s report provides a thorough and unvarnished view of the results and is well worth reading. There is a lot to be concerned about in the survey results. I (and the Washington Post, Federal Times, Government Executive and Federal News Radio) have written about the alarming lack of faith in agency leadership. Many aspects of the survey were flat or showed minor variations from last year. The clear picture is one of a work force that has changed its views of its employer for the worse in the last 4 iterations of the survey.

With all of the bad news, is there anything in the FEVS results to feel good about? I think the answer is yes. Last August I wrote a post called “How Long Does it Take to Crush a Federal Employee?” where I pointed out the risks of incessant Fed-bashing. I said there are no nameless, faceless bureaucrats. There are people. They have names. They have faces. They have families, feelings, hopes and dreams. They also have vital skills the government needs to operate effectively. More important for the government as an employer – they have choices and are free to leave. My concern then was about the Federal workforce being crushed by the forces that treat them as nothing more than costs and political pawns. I am still concerned. We are pushing the morale of the workforce to extremes. The pattern of FEVS results since 2010 proves that. But I still believe the Federal work force contains a great many smart, dedicated and valuable public servants whose resilience is remarkable. The 2014 FEVS results demonstrate that they have not yet been crushed. Here are a few reasons why:

FEVS

Seventy percent of employees still get a feeling of accomplishment from their work. Almost all express a willingness to put in extra effort when needed. Most believe their supervisors treat them with respect. They clearly believe in the work they do, with 90% saying it is important. This is from a workforce that had its pay frozen for 4 years, has been bashed by politicians for even more years, and has far too many people devaluing and disrespecting their work. That tells me Federal employees are a resilient group that can take a punch and come back strong. My experience in 33 years in government told me the same thing. Are there lousy employees who are the bureaucrats some people imagine them to be? Yes. Is that the majority of the workforce? No way. If it were, agencies would be failing every day. That isn’t happening, because rank-and-file employees find ways to get the job done.

We have all heard the complaints about the employees who do not get things done, who come in late and leave early, or who go to the cafeteria to read the newspaper every morning. We do not hear about the Federal employees who come in early because they need to get a critical project done, or those who leave work at 7PM every day because the workload keeps growing while the budget is shrinking. When I was at the Defense Logistics Agency and at DHS headquarters, I could always find people still at work when I left, whether it was at 5PM or at 9PM. That time does not get reported, because supervisors are not supposed to “suffer or permit” overtime that is not recorded. So those hours go uncounted and we pretend the government is not getting millions of hours of free labor.

I remain convinced the typical Federal employee is capable, works hard and provides good value to the taxpayers. The 2014 FEVS shows that, even in the face of a barrage of Fed-bashing, they still believe in what they do. They still are willing to put in more time than we pay them for, and they still believe the government is a place where you can feel good about what you do for a living.

That is good news.

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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.

 

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