Goldilocks and Federal Employee Pay

There is a lot of talk in the news and on Capitol Hill regarding federal pay and benefits. Regardless of your point of view, you can find someone to agree with you. Federal employees are grossly overpaid. Federal employees are terribly underpaid and need a huge pay raise. Federal employee benefits are too generous and should be reduced. Federal employee benefits are not good enough.

Somehow I feel like I have walked into the federal version of Goldilocks and the 3 Bears and people are treating this discussion like the porridge in the fairly tale. Is it too hot? Is it too cold? Is it just right?

I wish federal pay issues were as simple as many of the folks engaged in this debate pretend that they are. If that were the case, it would be much easier to decide what the truth is. But – we have 2 million federal employees in 400 job series ranging from trade and craft jobs, clerks and entry level workers, to senior professionals, world-class scientists, and people who do vital work that is unique to government. They are located in every state and around the world. Declaring that such a vast and complex workforce is “overpaid” or “underpaid” may be a good way to please partisans, small government advocates, employee unions, and other groups, but it does not serve the cause of accuracy and fairness.

The issue is too complicated to have a simple, one-size-fits-all answer. Are federal employees overpaid? Yes, some are. Are federal employees underpaid? Yes, some are. Is it easy to determine which is which? No, but it can be done. My fear is that the politics of the issue will get in the way of determining what federal pay should be. Can a Republican take a strong stand advocating that tens of thousands of federal employees get a big pay raise? Probably not. Can a Democrat take a strong stand and advocate that tens of thousands of employees get a pay cut, or a least a long-term pay freeze? Probably not.

Federal benefits are also not a simple issue. In general, federal employees get better benefits than rank and file employees in the private sector. Is that good? Bad? It depends on your point of view. Do we believe employees everywhere should have excellent health insurance and pensions? If so, it is easy to make the argument that the federal government should set an example and be a model employer. If your answer is that companies and governments should pay the least they can get away with to get a supply of labor, then your answer is that federal benefits should be cut.

In an ideal world, we would have an informed discussion where we make that type of decision. We would not try to reduce it to a bumper sticker that declares there is a single answer to a complicated question. We would understand that how we treat 2 million people is a big deal. The federal workforce is a significant part of our economy. In areas like the National Capital Region, or Jacksonville, Florida, or Denver, Colorado, or any other city with a large contingent of federal employees, what we do with the federal workforce has consequences that reach far beyond the employees who are directly affected.

If we want a real answer, and a real solution, I believe we have to stop treating the federal workforce as a homogeneous group that should be treated exactly alike. We should pay people for the value of the work they do. That means any new approach to federal pay is going to have winners and losers, based on what is or is not in demand in the labor market. That means replacing the outdated General Schedule with something that is market-based. It also means being willing to pay some people less, and it means being willing to pay some people a lot more.

Rather than trying to work this out in a political food fight, I would prefer to see a nonpartisan commission that could examine the issue and make recommendations for a new federal pay and benefits approach. We could go a step farther and make it a process similar to the Base Realignment and Closure Commissions, which presented recommendations that had to be accepted or rejected in their entirety. Such a commission should be charged with updating federal pay and benefits to make the government a very good employer, with pay and benefits that are not the very highest, but are in the top 50 percent of the American workforce. This type of approach could de-politicize the issue to a degree and reduce the tendency to treat the federal workforce as a proxy for the big government/small government fight that has been going on since the Federalists and Anti-Federalists at the constitutional convention debated about the nature of the republic and what our constitution should include. It would not be easy, but it would be more likely to produce a fair outcome than we are likely to get from the political process.

Would the Federal Supervisor Training Act Make a Difference?

Federal News Radio reported May 11 that the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is “putting civil service reform in the front seat of its agenda this year, through a series of listening sessions and fact-finding hearings on federal personnel, hiring, performance management and other topics.” Among the items on the agenda is Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s Federal Supervisor Training Act. Senator Heitkamp introduced the bill in 2016 and is likely to reintroduce it this year.

What is in the Bill?

The bill is intended to “provide for mandatory training for Federal Government supervisors and the assessment of management competencies.” It would mandate that new supervisors receive specific types of training in their first 12 months on the job. The requirements would include:

  • Individual development plans covering
    • developing and discussing relevant performance goals and objectives with the employee and ensuring the performance goals and objectives align to the mission and priority goals of the agency
    • communicating and discussing progress relative to performance goals and objectives, and conducting performance appraisals
    • mentoring and motivating employees and improving employee engagement, performance, and productivity
    • fostering a work environment characterized by fairness, respect, equal opportunity, and attention paid to the merit of the work of employees
    • effectively managing employees with unacceptable performance, including training to understand the disciplinary options and procedures available to the supervisor
    • effectively using the probationary period to examine whether an employee has demonstrated successful performance or conduct to continue past the probationary period
    • addressing reports of a hostile work environment, retaliation, or harassment of, or by, another supervisor or employee
    • meeting supervisor competencies established by the Office of Personnel Management or the employing agency of the supervisor
    • collaborating with human resources employees to recruit, select, appraise, and reward employees to build a workforce based on organizational goals, budget considerations, and staffing needs; and
    • otherwise carrying out the duties or responsibilities of a supervisor
  • Training supervisors on prohibited personnel practices, employee rights, and the procedures and processes used to enforce employee rights; and
  • Identifying experienced supervisor mentors to provide guidance and advice to new or underperforming supervisors to
    • transfer knowledge and advice in areas such as communication, critical thinking, responsibility, flexibility, motivating and engaging employees, teamwork, leadership, and professional development; and
    • identify strengths and areas for development

The bill aims high – seeking to address many of the problems that stem from supervisors not having the skills they need to do their jobs. Those problems are widespread, as evidenced by the results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). Three quarters of the questions on the FEVS related directly or indirectly to the quality of leadership in agencies. As I have written before – leader development is not a luxury. It is a necessity if we want to see improvement in government. This bill attempts to drive leader development by setting statutory requirements for timing, content, and follow up on leader development.

What Would Make it Better?

So – would it make a difference? Maybe, but there are some improvements that could be made to the bill to increase the odds of success. Here is what I recommend and why:

  1. The bill should mandate that agencies set aside some percentage of supervisor/manager salaries for training. Absent a clear statutory requirement, agencies are likely to take the cheap/easy way out. That means all of the objectives of the training will be lumped into a quickie class for a few days or a week. We have all seen agency reactions to budget problems. Training is among the first things to go, and supervisory training is high on the list of training to be cut.
  2. It should set minimum numbers of hours for supervisory training, and the minimum should be much higher than most people would expect. The common approach to supervisory training is to run supervisors through a 40-hour course that covers everything they need to know. Such programs jam in everything from how to get a job classified to dealing with problem employees. The problem is that these “shake and bake” approaches do not work. Without opportunities to practice the skills they are learning, and with so many subjects jammed into a few days, such programs have little lasting effect. A truly effective leader development program will include a variety of types of training and will last for several months or more. It will include opportunities for practicing skills, with evaluations of how the supervisor is doing.
  3. The bill should prohibit reliance on the most common (and ineffective) means of evaluating training – course evaluations completed by students at the conclusion of training courses. The bill tries to address some of the common problems with supervisor training by requiring follow-up training, evaluations of supervisory training programs, and requiring OPM to issue regulations that include “measures by which to assess the effectiveness of agency supervisor training programs.” That general requirement is likely to result in evaluations that are little more than window dressing and do not say anything about how effective the training is. Students might find a course fascinating and enjoyable, but go back to work with no new skills. To make evaluations effective, the bill should mandate specific measures that actually tell an agency if the training is working. Do FEVS numbers change? Does the agency conduct 360 degree feedback and get better results? Do agency performance metrics improve? Does the agency do a better job of dealing with problem employees? Do supervisors say they have the skills necessary to do the job?

I applaud the Senate for looking seriously at this issue. If they can get a bill passed that actually results in meaningful training for supervisors, it is likely we will see big improvements in many critical areas that affect employee morale and productivity. By making a few improvements to the bill before it is reintroduced, we could see even greater likelihood of success.