Shake Up Government With an Agile Organization and Workforce

Recent Government Accountability Office testimony before the House of Representatives, Talent Management Strategies to Help Agencies Better Compete in a Tight Labor Market, highlighted several challenges the government faces as it competes for talent in an increasingly tight labor market. GAO identified five key trends.

To address those challenges, GAO made the following recommendations:

  • Align human capital strategy with current and future mission requirements. Agencies need to identify the knowledge and skills necessary to respond to current and future demands. Key practices include identifying and assessing existing skills, competencies, and skills gaps.
  • Acquire and assign talent. To ensure the appropriate capacity exists to address evolving mission requirements, agencies can use internships, cultivate a diverse talent pipeline, highlight their respective missions, and recruit early in the school year.
  • Incentivize and compensate employees. While agencies may struggle to offer competitive pay in certain labor markets, they can leverage existing incentives that appeal to workers’ desire to set a schedule and to work in locations that provide work-life balance.
  • Engage employees. Engaged employees are more productive and less likely to leave, according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Agencies can better ensure their employees are engaged by managing their performance, involving them in decisions, and providing staff development.

The trends GAO identified are a good sample of the many challenges the government faces, and their recommendations were a good start. But when we look at the challenges in talent management and performance, I do not think fixing hiring and strengthening employee engagement are enough. Those employees will still be stuck in unresponsive organizations that look much like they did five, ten or twenty years ago. Government organizations tend to be inflexible, and jobs are often narrowly defined and stay the same for years. Many are reorganized periodically, but those reorgs do not change the character or inflexible nature of the organization. They are just rearranging the boxes and where people sit.

Those inflexible organizations exist is a world that is awash in change. Technology is evolving at such a pace that government may struggle to catch up, let alone stay current. Mission demands will also continue to change, as will the demographics of the nation and the attitudes toward work. Government is not even remotely prepared to keep up with those changes, and their ability to do so is likely to get worse before it gets better. 

In an interconnected world where virtually any information you need is literally in the palm of your hand, government is hierarchical, not effective at sharing information, and not designed to evolve with mission, technology and workforce changes. Organizations could be designed with flexibility in mind, but few in government are. They can have job descriptions that are adaptable, but few are. They can listen to their employees, but many do not.

At the same time that everything around them is changing, the federal workforce is aging rapidly. The number of workers over age 60 is increasing, while new hires of people under age 30 continue to fall short of what is needed. The government is also developing a gap in midcareer employees. The number of workers between ages 45 and 54 decreased by more than 40K in the past 4 years. When an organization has a weak pipeline of young hires and a hollowing out of the middle, the future is grim.

As if that were not enough, federal employee bashing as a political activity is increasing. Politicians referring to career employees as “the deep state” and calling for reductions in workers in many departments are making it less likely that people in high-demand occupations will choose the federal government as an employer.

The trends and government’s organization and talent management policies add up to a great deal of risk. If the economy continues to produce jobs, the government will struggle to compete for talent, and will have difficulty keeping the people it has. The aging workers are going to age out of the workforce, so there will be big holes to fill. And the government’s unwillingness or inability to be more agile in its management and organization practices will make it difficult to keep up.

One potential solution is to apply some of the principles of Agile project management to government organizations. While Agile may be overhyped, the approach does include several concepts that are particularly adaptable to organization and talent issues. Ideas like satisfying customers by early and continuous delivery of solutions, welcoming change, and building organizations and projects around trusted, motivated individuals apply to more than software development and project management. Greater use of face-to-face conversations, a focus on simplicity and maximizing the amount of work not done are also concepts that can apply to how jobs and organizations work. So are self-reflection and focus on how to become more effective.

Imagine government organizations that focus on customers and continually adapt to meet their needs. How about trusting the employees who know the work? And reducing hierarchy and allowing more flexible, self-managing teams? Why not have job descriptions that are far more focused on what people should know and the results they should achieve, rather than being lists of unchanging duties that are never current and rarely accurate?

Government gets far too many unfounded complaints about its shortcomings and federal workers take the blame for problems politicians create, but it is true is that government is too rigid, too unwilling to adapt, and too comfortable with the status quo. If we take some Agile concepts and apply them to how government is organized and staffed, we may see that those criticisms can be addressed. Taxpayers will be better off and federal workers will have better working conditions.

It’s Time for a Cabinet Level Management Department

Now that the Congress has made it clear that moving the Office of Personnel Management into the General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget is not happening, it is time to look at some of the government’s management issues and propose a solution.

While all of the focus on the OPM proposal was on OPM’s shortcomings, it is safe to say that the federal government as a whole has not covered itself with glory with respect to management issues. They buy the same systems over and over (even with efforts by agencies to curb buying), Human Resources practices are often stuck in the 1980s, agencies often cannot get a clean opinion on their books, many government facilities are outdated and poorly maintained, technology programs still fail at alarmingly high numbers, and on and on.

In recent years GSA has focused on shared services in an attempt to reduce costs and drive efficiencies, but “shared services” is still a four-letter word in most agencies. Even getting an Enterprise approach to such services within a single Department or Agency is often asking too much. The result is inefficient and overpriced services that do not deliver the support needed and drain resources away from agency missions. Rather than operate as an organization with two million employees, the federal government operates as a collection of large, medium, small and micro agencies.

The first argument I hear when I talk about a Management Department is that we already have one. After all, the Office of Management and Budget has Management as its middle name. The reality is that OMB is really the Office of Budget, and maybe, from time to time and if they make enough noise, Management. Management has a seat at the table in OMB, but that seat is a high chair. Part of the problem with moving HR policy from OPM to OMB was that people programs were going to be given a seat at the kids’ table.

The idea of creating an agency to focus on management is not new. The Trump and Obama Administrations and the Clinton campaign considered a GSA/OPM merger at various times, as did the Bill Clinton Administration. Every time I have been in the room for that type of discussion, the answer has always been the same. It is too hard. It will not fly with the Republicans, who do not want new agencies. It will not fly with the Democrats, who want to protect the Civil Service and see changes to agencies like OPM as a threat to an independent, merit-based Civil Service. It will not fly with OMB, because it would reduce OMB to a much smaller budget-focused agency. Provide answers to all of those questions and proponents of the status quo will throw out a hundred more. What I do not hear from those who support the status quo is that they are happy with the status quo.

Federal agencies spend too much on HR systems and services, but complain about what they get for their money. They often cannot get a clean opinion on their books, or they complain that the financial management practices and systems are not up to the challenges they face. They complain that they spend too much on facilities, but are not happy with them. They complain about taking money from the mission for “overhead” services, but balk when you offer them a less costly option that could work better.

I believe the real solution is a cabinet-level Executive Department focused on all aspects of government management. Such a Department could bring needed focus to management issues and, over a period of several years, begin consolidating systems, services and policies in a way that relieves burdens on the other Departments and Agencies and allows them to devote more of their resources directly to their missions. Here is how I think it could look:

    • Cabinet Level
    • Designated as Chief Management Officer of the US and Chair of the President’s Management Council
    • Secretary appointed for a 5-year term and removable by the President only for cause
    • 6 Bureaus, each with a Senate-confirmed Undersecretary
      • Talent management
      • Procurement
      • Facilities
      • Technology
      • Finance
      • Accountability and Merit Systems Protection
    • Absorb all of
      • OPM
      • GSA
      • Management side of OMB
      • OMB’s Office of Federal Financial Management
      • Merit Systems Protection Board
      • Federal Labor Relations Authority
      • Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service
      • Office of Special Counsel
      • Office of Government Ethics

Every one of those moves is likely to cause someone to howl in protest, but the changes would bring the government’s various management agencies under one roof. Many of the problems the government faces cannot be solved by any of the existing agencies without significant interagency cooperation. This approach would jump start the interagency process by at least putting the management agencies together with a common leader who can drive change.

I am certain some advocates for the Civil Service will say that the oversight agencies cannot be in the same organization as the policy agencies, but that is not really true. Today much of the merit system oversight rests not with the Merit Systems Protection Board, but with OPM’s Merit System Accountability and Compliance Division. It is already under the same roof as the policy organization. Merging all of these management agencies into a cohesive whole is far more likely to lead to improvements than maintaining the status quo and hoping a miracle happens.

If we really want to protect a merit-based career Civil Service, we need Human Resources policies that work. We need modern facilities and technology. We need to spend money wisely and stop duplicating services and systems over and over. I would go a step farther, and give the Undersecretary for Accountability and Merit Systems Protection independent enforcement authority. If s/he could fire a manager who commits a prohibited personnel practice, or anyone who egregiously violates the Hatch Act, we would see more interest in complying with the law.

It certainly would not be easy, but a real focus on Management could lead to changes that everyone, including the most conservative and the most progressive wings of both parties, could support. Would either get everything they want? No. But what they might get would be a big improvement over what we have today.