The Federal Government’s Employer Brand is in Trouble

I recently participated in an ACT-IAC panel where we discussed the effects of the recent partial government shutdown. One comment I made is that I believe the government is still a good employer, but its brand as an employer has tainted by the government shutdown. I also talked about the same issue in a recent interview with Louis LaBrecque for Bloomberg Law. Bloomberg’s headline referred to the government’s “tarnished brand.”

The government employer brand has been a bit of a mixed bag for many years. Government is sometimes thought of as stodgy, bureaucratic, and not innovative. The idea that poorly performing federal workers cannot be fired (which is not true) contributes to the image of federal jobs not being the best place for top talent to go.

On the other hand, government has accomplished some amazing things. In July we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. Government built the Social Security program, which provides a financial lifeline for millions of elderly citizens. Virtually every agency can provide a list of great accomplishments. The federal government was among the earliest employers to provide equal employment opportunity. It continues to provide countless options for career development for people who are willing to move around. Add to that good pay and benefits and you have an employer brand that should be great. Sadly, it is not. Even students in government-focused degree programs are generally more interested in a career in nongovernment organizations or industry.

The shutdown just added to the list of problems that are harming the government employer brand. Some people may wonder why the government should care if its brand as an employer has been tainted or tarnished. The reason is that the government has to hire people. A lot of them. In fact, they average more than 200,000 hires per year. Our unemployment rate is nearing the level that is considered to be full employment. Companies who want to hire the same people the government wants to hire are paying attention to their employer brand. In fact, in many companies leadership of efforts to improve the employer brand rest with the CEO. Employer branding is one of the chief battlefields in the fight for talent. The government is not well-positioned for that fight. Most of new federal government hires in recent years have been over 30 years of age. As I have said before, the government has to start hiring young people if it wants to have the experienced people it needs in the next five to ten years. That is much harder to do if your employer brand is damaged.

We have all seen organizations with damaged brands. Usually it is because some scandal happened and the organization has to recover. In government the most notable examples were the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) data breaches. They generated enormous amounts of bad press and tarnished OPM’s reputation. The ongoing move of background investigations (and the billion dollars and 2,000 staff that go with them) to the Department of Defense is but one consequence of the breaches. The Administration’s proposals to virtually eliminate OPM may not have happened absent the breaches.

When we think of damage to brands, we typically think of challenges such as the data breaches involving Facebook, Marriott, Equifax, and others. Data breaches are not the only way to damage a brand. Examples include the Chipotle Norovirus outbreak and the BP oil spill. Possibly the most famous was the Tylenol tampering case in 1982. Tylenol was a good example corporate actions to recover the brand’s reputation. Usually when we see these types of incidents in the private sector we also see effective crisis management, deliberate steps to mitigate the damage to the brand, and a strategy to recover the brand’s reputation. We also almost always see an apology from one or more senior officers of the company.

How should government leaders act to recover the government’s employer brand? The sad fact is that the people who caused the shutdown are not going to apologize. Whether it is because they fear of loss of power or reputation, or they just will not admit when they are wrong, government is not big on apologies. Most of the complaints I heard following the OPM breaches were that no one ever apologized. There are exceptions, of course. President Obama apologized for the disastrous rollout of the website.

The shutdown was such a contentious political issue that neither side is likely to apologize. That does not mean there is nothing that can be done to begin repairing the damage to the brand. One step would be to end shutdowns for good. There are proposals on the Hill to do just that. In addition to ending a stupid practice where no one wins, it would help restore one of the best aspects of the government employer brand — the employment stability that government offers.

Agencies can take steps on their own by putting more time, commitment and resources behind improving the morale and engagement problems we see highlighted in the Partnership for Public Service Best Places to Work rankings. It is easy to see who are the leading agencies in government. Good employers know that their own employees are among the best recruiting sources. Those employees are not going to encourage their friends to apply for work in an agency that does not demonstrate that it cares about its employees.

Some of the agencies that rank poorly have a litany of excuses. Managers tell me they would do better if the rules were different. They tell me they would do better if the questions in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey were rewritten. They say the surveys are completed by the unhappy employees and the good employees do not participate. They say they have no money to invest in programs for the workforce. All of those and the many other excuses most of us have heard are simply that — excuses. Agency leaders who are committed to making their agencies better places to work can do it and they will find the resources they need. The fact that so many agencies can consistently receive excellent reviews from their employees when they operate under the same Civil Service rules takes away most of these excuses.

OPM and OMB can also act to repair the brand. OMB can support agency requests for dollars to invest in training and engagement programs. OPM can invest in programs to advertise the benefits of federal employment. They can work on simplifying Civil Service rules that are under their control. The Administration could focus more on rebuilding OPM’s capabilities and less on trying to dismantle the agency. The President’s Management Council can make the employer brand a priority. And all of them could end the virtual ban on most agencies marketing themselves.

If the government employer brand continues to erode, we should expect to see a talent crisis in government. As increasing numbers of employees retire and agencies struggle to replace them, government services are likely to erode as well. And that erosion will not be limited to agencies that were affected by the shutdown. The damage to the brand harms the entire government and the people it serves.

Do we really want to see a Department of Defense that cannot hire the people it needs? Do we want critical health programs to have the same problem? Do we want the Department of Veterans Affairs to be able to hire the health care professionals it needs to serve our Veterans?

Whether you want bigger government, smaller government, or somewhere in between, you probably want DoD to work. You want elderly Americans to get their Social Security checks. You want Veterans to receive the services they earned. And you want safe food and hundreds of additional services the government provides. Those things do not happen if government cannot hire cannot hire the people it needs.


Fed Up Feds May Have Good News on Shutdown

After enduring the longest shutdown in history, federal workers and contractors who have been facing the possibility of yet another shutdown may have some good news. On Monday night news broke that House and Senate conferees have agreed “in principle” for fiscal 2019 funding for the agencies that were affected by the recent partial shutdown.

The report is good news, but we have seen agreements “in principle” blow up on the way to being finalized. You may recall that the House and Senate had an agreement in December that would have avoided the recent shutdown. We know how that worked out. With that in mind, here are a few of the potential outcomes.

A Deal. There is a chance the deal will hold. Each side will give up something, they will sign a deal, the President will sign off, and the government will be funded until September 30, 2019. For most of our history, that is the way Washington worked. Everyone realized that compromise was the way civilized people operate. Everyone gives a little and declares victory. Let’s hope that is what happens here. I will believe it when I see a presidential signature.

Punt. If this agreement falls apart or takes too long to reduce to writing, the classic Washington move is to pass another short-term continuing resolution (CR) to buy more time. The recent shutdown ended with a short-term CR, which is why we are where we are. The funding for October 1, 2018 through the beginning of the recent shutdown was also a CR. CR is loosely translated as “we can’t do our jobs, so we will punt.” Outsiders may look at CRs and wonder what is wrong with them. Plenty. The biggest problem is uncertainty. Agencies do not know what their budget for the rest of the year will be, so they may limit hiring or contracts. Then they get an appropriation for the rest of the year that has to be obligated before midnight on September 30. Then they are beaten up for spending a lot of money in the last weeks of the fiscal year. Another big problem is that agencies cannot start new projects during a CR. That means many priorities are deferred. Anyone who knows anything about government will tell you CRs are a miserable way to run a government.

A Deal, But … Here is where it gets crazy. There is a chance that the parties will strike a deal, and then we will run into a wall. No, not the President’s wall. The debt ceiling. Another peculiar feature of modern politics is that appropriating money is not enough. Beginning with the Second Liberty Bond Act in 1917, we have a debt ceiling that limits the amount of money the government can borrow. When it comes to spending, where Congress has to appropriate money anyway, the purpose of the debt ceiling is mostly political. But the impacts are real. March 1, 2019 is the deadline for the debt ceiling to be raised or suspended. So it is possible that we could see a crisis averted by an appropriations deal, but then turn around and see another one just two weeks later. Conferees are attempting to include the debt ceiling increase in a comprehensive deal, but there is still no guarantee.

Another Shutdown Now or in October. This is the one most federal employees and contractors in the affected agencies are dreading. They are starting to recover from the five week shutdown that just ended. In fact, some are still dealing with back pay issues and many contractors are not getting back pay at all. The logical take on another shutdown is that it would only last a few days and then the politicians would come to their senses. I used to think that way. But — look at what has happened. The Budget Control Act of 2011 (the resolution of the 2011 debt ceiling crisis) introduced us to sequestration. You may recall that sequestration was supposed to be the legislative equivalent of a gun to the head. The outcomes would be so bad that members of Congress would get their act together and pass appropriations bills. And we know how that worked out. Many people (including me) thought the last shutdown would be brief because the Republicans would want it to end while they still controlled the House of Representatives. And we know how that worked out. The bottom line is that traditional expectations of things happening in Washington are no longer valid. Would another shutdown be viewed by most people as a total failure of the political process? Yes. Would anyone really win? No. Will it happen? Maybe. Even if we see an agreement to avert a shutdown now, appropriators will have to start working on funding for fiscal year 2020 that begins on October 1. Maybe the parties will not want to go into an election year with another failure on their hands. Maybe they will think they should play hardball to appeal to their base voters. Who knows?

After working in and around federal HR for 40 years, I am growing more worried about the impact of shutdowns. The effect on workers is obvious. Another protracted shutdown could be financially ruinous for some people. The longer term effect of the recent shutdown and the continuing uncertainty is that agencies will be more likely to see increased turnover and they will have far more difficulty hiring new people to replace them. Some turnover will be from retirements. While that will be bad, what is even worse is turnover of people who are not eligible for retirement, but who are simply fed up with government and political game playing. For both retirees and the younger folks who might go, guess who is most likely to leave? High performers in high-demand jobs.

So — if we start seeing high performers in the most in-demand jobs leaving, how likely is that agencies will be able to replace them? Let’s see. The hiring process is broken. The government looks like a far more risky place to work than in the past. And there is little likelihood the political situation is going to change soon. The math on that one is simple.

If agencies cannot hire the talent they need, some would argue that they can just outsource the work. The problem is that contractors got hit in the last shutdown too. One question that applicants are likely to ask is “Did any of your employees lose pay in the government shutdown?” If the answer is yes, those companies may find it is much harder to get top talent to say yes. So “just outsource it” is not a good response.

Longtime readers know I am usually more optimistic than this post sounds. I have to admit I cannot blame people who say they would not go to work for the government. In fact, if we see another shutdown this week or in October, or another debt ceiling crisis, or both, my long-standing recommendation that young people seriously consider government as a career may finally change.

Am I fed up? Yes. Are you?