How Long Does it Take to Crush a Federal Employee?

The Federal workforce has been used as a political football for decades. Feds know the drill: A politician from either party needs to win points with the folks back home on the issue of cutting government. S/he makes sweeping over-generalizations about federal pay, federal employee performance or competence, unions or any one of a hundred other issues, and neatly avoids any admission of complicity in the problem. The “unelected nameless, faceless bureaucrats” are always to blame. If only they could be forced to work and the bad ones fired, our government’s problems would vanish, the sun would shine, and there would be peace in the world.

The Fed-bashing has risen to unprecedented levels in recent years. Let’s take an inventory. It has been 43 months (January 2010) since Federal employees have received a general pay raise. Just this week the House voted to allow Senior Executives to be suspended without pay when accused of wrongdoing. Not found guilty of wrongdoing – just accused. They voted to allow anyone to record any conversation with a Federal employee without the employee’s consent. It isn’t just one party either. A bipartisan majority voted to pass the “Stop Playing on Citizen’s Cash Act” to restrict conference spending. Other bills are pending to cripple Federal unions, deny Feds bonuses for outstanding performance, cut Federal retirement benefits, and more.

While that kind of rhetoric may be useful in politics, it is destructive for governance and the people who make up our government. 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. How long will it take before we crush the Federal workforce? What happens if we do?

The damage has started already. Federal retirements are up and continuing to rise. Employee responses to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey are showing increasing unhappiness. Virtually every question related to morale and engagement showed a decline from 2011 to 2012. Every Chief Human Capital Officer I’ve spoken with believes the numbers will be lower – much lower – in the next round of the survey. HR offices are reporting more difficulty in recruiting and hiring talent. How easy is it to recruit a new star employee when all you can offer as a motivator is the opportunity to serve and do interesting work? No pay raises and constant bashing by politicians are not exactly strong recruiting incentives. The potential damage is compounded by the fact that morale-induced turnover tends to drive the highest performers out of organizations. They are typically the most marketable and most able to take advantage of new opportunities. Even if you believe government is too big and federal employees are overpaid, is this a good approach to reducing its size? I have never found a credible leader who believes employee abuse is a legitimate management tool.

When I was HR Director for the Defense Logistics Agency, we did extensive in-depth analysis of our employee survey data. One finding that stuck with me was how long it took new hires in a bad environment to become disillusioned with their jobs. One field office that had particularly bad ratings had great feedback from employees for the first two years. After that, the ratings dropped like a rock. Based on that admittedly limited data point, it appears it takes 2 years to crush an employee. After that, the damage becomes more difficult to repair. As the attitudes become more ingrained, they are harder to change. We cannot simply start giving pay raises again and stop bashing the workforce and expect everything to be right with the world again.

Study after study shows the corrosive effects of poor morale in the workplace. Productivity goes down, leave use goes up, discretionary effort goes down, and attention to detail is often non-existent. In her book “Good Company” author Laurie Bassi says “The trademark of a worthy employer is the ability to masterfully manage the tension between employees as costs and employees as assets.” I think that is a great standard – one that the Federal government is failing to meet. The political battles today completely disregard the employees as assets and go beyond treating them as costs to the point where they are pawns in a political chess game. If we truly want to have a government that functions efficiently and effectively, it is time for the Fed bashing to stop. Have the debates regarding the power and reach of government, but stop treating the Federal workforce as though they are the problem. They are not and they can only take so much before their spirit, dedication and willingness to serve are crushed beyond repair.

Check out my new post “Performance Management – Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged”

Are New Political Appointees Ready to Govern?

Political appointees come from all walks of life and all sorts of backgrounds. Some understand and have worked in government, while others know little or nothing about how Washington works (when it does). A new appointee has to learn how to work within his/her agency, how to work with the White House (the Office of Management and Budget in particular), other agencies, the Congress, and the public. Many come with the idea that they are there to change the world. The fact that they are appointed by the President leads many to conclude they have tremendous power to enact the President’s policies and priorities. Their sense of urgency is high, their goals are far-reaching, and their desire to do good is often off the scale.

Appointee, meet Reality – Reality, meet Appointee.
It doesn’t take long for reality to rudely intrude and bring even the most dedicated professionals down to earth. Simply being appointed by the President or a member of his Cabinet does not bring with it the power to successfully execute significant changes in government. The ability of other agencies, the Congress and coutless other stakeholders to put up roadblocks is maddening. And as if that isn’t enough, they run headlong into the federal budget, procurement and HR processes. Faced with those realities, is it any wonder the average tenure of a political appointee is 18-24 months? Every appointee knows that statistic and understands (1) they serve at the pleasure and (2) Presidents are elected for 4 years at a time. Appointees see the ticking clock and act as if they are running a sprint to the finish line. They will work obscene numbers of hours for the few years they are in government to make certain they can accomplish some good. That collides with a career workforce that cannot possibly work at that pace and work those hours for 20 to 30 years. Even with 31 years as a career employee, I found myself pushing my staff so hard that one seasoned and highly respected career SES told me I had successfully made the transition to being an appointee because I expected everything immediately. I had to admit he was right. My view of what was doable was influenced by the knowledge that my time was limited.

During 31 years as a career federal employee and 2 years as a political appointee, I found the process for onboarding appointees was generally inadequate to prepare them for the enormous responsibilities they are taking on. As an appointee, many of my colleagues were so frustrated with government and so disappointed by the difficulty in effecting real change that they were ready to leave government. They had the passion, drive and real-world skills, but were struggling to effect real change.

What can be done to make it more likely these motivated individuals will be successful? A number of studies in recent years have identified the problem and dozens of recommendations for fixes. One of the best studies was published by the Partnership for Public Service. Ready to Govern, published in January 2010, identified a number of actionable steps that can be taken to improve the quality of Presidential transitions. Many of the Ready to Govern recommendations can also be applied throughout the term of an Administration to ensure its appointees are effective. Ready to Govern and other studies consistently recommend training for all new appointees. To be most effective, the training must occur early in their appointment (or even before) and should address the budget, procurement, and HR processes, and the ethics restrictions covering appointees. The Obama Administration implemented a successful Presidential Appointee Leadership Program to provide training for new appointees. When I was in the Administration, I participated in the program and helped train over 1,000 appointees. The interest in government, enthusiasm for the public good, and superb quality of the appointees was tremendously inspiring. In addition to the White House program, in the past year the Partnership for Public Service has worked with a group of experienced former career SES and political appointees to develop a series of Ready to Govern courses for new appointees. I have been privileged to work with them and serve as faculty for several of the sessions. We have piloted the program and gotten tremendous feedback on its effectiveness and real world applicability. 

Programs such as these can equip appointees with the information they need to be successful in government. In addition, they need agency-specific training regarding mission, structure, budget and employee data (demographics, Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and Best Places to Work results). It is critical to understand what is happening internally – why the agency exists and how it gets its funding. Appointees also need to understand how the agency workforce views the place if they hope to work closely with the career workforce to get their priorities accomplished.

An effective government-wide training program that provides the broad government view, combined with agency-specific onboarding programs that provde a deeper understanding of their own agencies, can help ensure that political appointees are truly Ready to Govern.