Author Archives: Jeff Neal

Presidents and the Federal Workforce

The recent passing of President George H.W. Bush prompted the usual remembrances and ceremonies, and a lot of discussion abut the late President Bush and his experience in government before his presidency. I was a federal employee during his term in office, working in Navy Human Resources. “41” as he came to be known following his son’s election as the 43rd President of the United States, came from a background in government. He served in the military, the Legislative Branch, and the executive branch. Unlike other presidents, he knew what government could and could not do because he had been in government for years. His presidency was generally positive for federal workers, with passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and appointment of an Office of Personnel Management Director (Constance Berry Newman) who was one of the most highly regarded Directors in the agency’s 40-year history. Within a week of his inauguration, President Bush met with members of the Senior Executive Service to ask that they join as members of his team. The Washington Post quoted then-Senior Executives Association president Carol Bonosaro as saying “The message he was sending was so clear. It was, ‘You’re an important part of my team, and I value you.’ When they walked out of there, they would have walked on water for him.”

Presidents usually come into government with little or no real experience in the executive branch. Presidents Trump, Obama, Bush 43, Clinton, Reagan, and Carter had none (other than military service by George W. Bush and Carter). In many respects, all of them approached the workforce from the perspective of an outsider, although President Carter did take a personal interest in the civil service and signed the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. In my estimation, Presidents Carter and Bush 41 were the only presidents in the past 40 years to engage with federal workers in a truly constructive manner.

We often view issues in government through the lens of partisanship, but in many respects federal workforce issues cross party lines, because both parties have benefitted from using federal workers to score political points. Here are just a few examples:

  • During the Reagan Administration, Feds in civilian agencies saw their numbers reduced and an OPM Director appointed (Don Devine) who was overtly hostile to federal workers.
  • During the Clinton Administration, the “Reinventing Government” initiative resulted in the elimination of many HR and procurement jobs, a move that resulted in both occupations being gutted for years. At the same time, the Administration set a goal of reducing the federal workforce to a number not seen since the Kennedy Administration. The goal was based more on politics than any data that demonstrated the goal would serve a useful purpose. during that time I observed many instances of jobs being abolished solely to meet that arbitrary goal, with little regard for the impact of the reduction.
  • The George W. Bush Administration put considerable effort behind outsourcing federal jobs, with the A-76 program running in high gear. The bias against the federal workforce was apparent, and thousands of jobs were eliminated.
  • President Obama won with strong support from federal unions, and stopped the Fed bashing of his predecessors. However, he also presided over three years of federal pay freezes and did not meet with members of the Senior Executive Service until almost six years into his Administration.

The federal workforce is one of the most potent tools of the presidency. As Chief Executive, the president leads more than two million employees. They can and will carry out the priorities of the administration, as long as they are legal. Those senior executives who would have done everything they could to support President George H.W. Bush would have done the same for President Clinton, had he asked. Or for President Obama or President Trump.

Imagine having two million people at your disposal, with a combined 27 million years of experience (based on the average length of service for 2.08 million workers), who are sworn to uphold the Constitution and faithfully execute their duties. Now imagine ignoring those people, or worse, actively disparaging them. Presidents of both parties should understand that the federal workforce is not the enemy, nor are they people who should be ignored. They are an asset, and the primary means of turning most presidential priorities into actions. They can and will do their duty, and they can and will deliver results.

Presidents should also recognize that a President of the United Sates criticizing his or her own workforce is much like a general criticizing his own troops right before sending them into battle. Little can be gained and much can be lost.

 

 

What are the “Grand Challenges” in Public Administration? Make Your Voice Heard.

Almost anyone who has been engaged with government, either as a taxpayer, recipient of government services, government worker, academic, an employee or participant in a good government organization, or just someone interested in good government, recognizes that we face challenges. Cybersecurity, border security, climate change, shifting demographics, an aging workforce, natural disasters, and countless other challenges are becoming so pressing that something must be done. Are state, local and federal government ready to meet these and other challenges we may face?

I wish I could say the answer is an unequivocal “Yes!” The truth is that these are big challenges. One could even say that they are “Grand Challenges” that we will face at least through the 2020s, and probably long after that.

The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), an independent, nonprofit, Congressionally-chartered, and nonpartisan organization assisting government leaders in building more effective, efficient, accountable, and transparent organizations, is launching a new campaign to identify the Grand Challenges in Public Administration. The Academy’s initiative is designed to do more than simply identify the challenges — NAPA seeks identify how governments and supporting organizations can successfully address those challenges. Once the Grand Challenges are identified, NAPA will begin a process that motivates concrete action across the public administration community to solve them. Grand Challenges is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop and drive an agenda for government over the next decade, so the Academy wants everyone to have a voice.

As Chair of the Academy’s board of directors, I can assure ChiefHRO readers that the Academy wants the widest possible input — including from practitioners, academics, students, interest groups, and the general public — on two key questions.

  1. Over the next decade, what is a grand challenge that government (federal, state, and/or local) must address in order for American society to reach its full potential?
  2. Over the next decade, what is the most important thing that government can do to improve its management and operations so it has the capacity to address the most critical challenges facing the United States?

The Academy’s Grand Challenges Steering Committee, comprising distinguished representatives from across the public administration, scientific and media communities, will conduct a systematic analysis of the public’s ideas and ultimately announce a final set of Grand Challenges at the Academy’s annual meeting in November 2019, as well as on the Academy website and in other publications.

We often complain about problems in government, or problems we believe government can solve, but do not always see a way to go beyond complaining and get started on making a difference. This Academy initiative is a way to participate and have your voice heard. More information about the campaign, the selection process, and the submission process can be found on the Grand Challenges website. Please submit your ideas through April 30, 2019.