Hiring Freezes Have Consequences – And So Do Budgets

President Trump’s hiring freeze has been in place since January 23, 2017. Judging by the emails, comments, calls and questions I am receiving, there are still agencies that have questions about what they can and cannot do during the freeze.

Add to that the uncertainty about the FY 2018 (and beyond) budget, and it is understandable that many federal employees worry that winter is coming for the federal workforce. President Trump’s Executive Order today directing OMB to come up with a plan for reorganizing the Executive Branch adds even more urgency to the discussion regarding the size of the workforce. After watching the goings on for the last 2 months, I am not ready to pronounce gloom and doom for the workforce, but I do believe federal agencies and the workforce are in for more change than they have experienced in the past several decades.

Let’s take a look at a few examples. The Department of Defense is on the list of favored agencies that are likely to receive a plus up from the budget process. In a typical year, Defense hired just over 90,000 people last year. With the freeze in place, they are continuing to hire in a lot of positions, but they are also building up a backlog of unfilled jobs. Other Departments are in the same position. Homeland Security has exempted many of its jobs because they are engaged in border security, immigration enforcement, and other national security related jobs. But what about the rest? Last year DHS hired almost 21,000 people. Other agencies that have few jobs that are tied directly to national security or public safety are continuing to amass a large backlog of unfilled jobs.

Trying to catch up after the freeze is lifted would be a big problem if the intent is to do some trimming of agency payrolls. In this case, it appears that the intent is to do more than trim. Rather than modest cuts that rein in the federal payroll, it appears the administration is interested in far more significant cuts. Recent reporting in the Washington Post, Fox News and other outlets is pointing to much larger cuts, with some agencies seeing double-digit reductions in their labor budgets.

So why am I not taking the gloom and doom view? Presidential budget requests are not enacted by the Congress with no changes. In fact, the reception the President’s budget gets from the House and Senate is typically rejection. The likelihood of the Congress enacting all of the cuts the President is suggesting and doing them all at once in 2018 is remote. Many of the agencies are very popular with the American people. Many of the programs they run are popular. Decimating popular programs and/or agencies can have electoral consequences that members of Congress do not want. That said, republican budget proposals in recent years have called for some significant cuts in non-Defense programs. I expect to see budget cuts in many agencies, but I expect them to be tempered by Congress.

So – does that mean agencies have no worries and do not need to prepare for the worst? Absolutely not. In fact, any responsible agency that is in the budget crosshairs should begin planning TODAY for a significant reduction in Fiscal 2018. Even agencies that may be safe from a mission perspective will have to look at the cost of mission support services. That means not adding new staff (even if the freeze is lifted) unless not hiring them risks mission failure. It means preparing a plan to do downsizing in an orderly way. Agencies should be running the numbers to see what kind of attrition they can expect. What would early retirement produce? Would buyouts help? If so, how much? Does the agency have the money in FY 2017 to incentivize turnover now, to lessen the burden on the 2018 budget?

Downsizing effectively is far more than just letting people go out the door and not replacing them, Agencies must rethink their work, their missions, and how they get things done. An agency with 10,000 employees cannot operate in exactly the same way if it has to make do with 9,000 employees. That means new organizations, new job descriptions, new performance objectives, better work processes, and more. All of that takes time.

Agencies should also begin planning for reduction in force. No one wants to hear that, but the truth is that few agencies are prepared to run a RIF. Getting ready takes months. Running the RIF takes months. Doing the right thing and trying to minimize the number of people who are involuntarily separated takes months. If agencies wait until a budget is passed, or at least until the numbers are more certain, they will box themselves into a corner that is almost impossible to get out of. As I said in a post on March 3, RIF is expensive and the aftermath of RIF is more expensive.

If agencies do decide to begin planning now for what might happen with the Fiscal 2018 budget, they are not selling out their workforce. They are doing the right thing and trying to be prepared for what might happen. That is what leaders do. Because it is so important, agency leaders should be upfront with their workforce about what they are doing. Do not plan behind closed doors, hoping the workforce will not find out about it and get scared. They will find out about it. And they are already scared. Federal employee should be treated like the adults they are. Planning for downsizing without telling the employees builds more fear and it builds mistrust. When an agency is facing tremendous change, more communication is not only better, it is absolutely essential.





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Navigating the Pioneers vs. Guardians Conflict that Limits Government Innovation


My ICF colleague Michael “Whit” Whitaker wrote a great piece on the tension between the “Pioneers” and the “Guardians” in government. Understanding that tension is essential for any government reform effort, so I asked Whit to allow me to share this article with ChiefHRO readers.

Guest post by Dr. Michael “Whit” Whitaker

In previewing his upcoming budget, President Trump called on the government to do more with less, to operate in a lean and accountable way that delivers greater value to the American people per dollar spent.  Implicit in this call for a new operating future is a mandate for greater innovation across government.  Achieving significant new value with fewer resources cannot be achieved by simply doing what government does now incrementally more efficiently but instead requires a re-examination of the end-to-end value chain of government service delivery.

As government leaders consider how to meet this mandate, they are advised to consider how to navigate the inherent conflict between individual and organizational personality types that may work to limit innovation potential as highlighted in the March-April 2017 Harvard Business Review (HBR) section on The New Science of Team Chemistry.  As noted in the HBR section, all teams are comprised of mixes of four primary personality types including Pioneers, Drivers, Guardians, and Integrators.  Pioneers (or as some may term Innovators) are adaptable, imaginative, and drawn to risk and are energized by trying new things.  They are alienated by rules, structure and a focus on process.  Guardians, on the other hand, are practical, restrained, and methodical and are drawn to predictability, consistency, and organization.  They are alienated by disorder, ambiguity, uncertainty, and time pressure.  The profiles of the Pioneers and Guardians make it apparent that they are naturally in conflict.  Pioneers want to go fast and try new things even if they may fail while guardians covet certainty, structure, and a detailed plan to achieve results.

While the HBR section focuses on these personalities for individuals, the science of team chemistry can also be applied within organizations and across the broader “team government” that spans the entire public sector.  The Office of Inspector General (OIG) report on 18F IT security practices and the exit interview with 18F cofounder and former executive director Aaron Snow serve as examples of how Guardian and Pioneer personality profiles can manifest across government organizations.  As an organization, OIG is charged with ensuring proper processes and rules are followed to reduce risks and generate more predictable outcomes.  Assuming the Guardian mindset, OIG perceived 18F as not following proper IT security policies and procedures.  In contrast, 18F, as an organization, was designed to move fast and disrupt existing rules and structures. Assuming the Pioneer mindset, Snow notes in the exit interview that using technology in an innovative way requires pressing very hard against the established rules. With each organization operating per its founding principles and being driven by the likely predominant nature of the employees within it (Guardians vs. Pioneers), conflict over innovative activities was likely inevitable. As more government organizations promote innovation initiatives designed to disrupt established norms, move faster, and drive greater government value delivery per dollar spent, this pattern of Guardian vs. Pioneer is likely to be repeated.

The likelihood of Guardian vs. Pioneer conflicts holds many lessons for organizational leaders who are seeking to promote innovation.  To start, leaders should think about their innovation initiatives and the mix of personality types and team management required to make them successful at three distinct levels:

  • The innovation team(s): The primary team or teams tasked with driving innovation need to have the right mix of Pioneers who push boundaries with Guardians who ground the ideas in sufficient detail to turn creative ideas into innovative solutions.  If the Guardian personality is not represented on the innovation team, conflicts are very likely to arise as soon as ideas are introduced to the broader organization.
  • The organizational level: Leaders should assume that even if the innovation team has a mix of personality types, the team as a unit is likely to act more in line with a Pioneer personality than the organization as a whole by the very nature of its charge to drive innovation.  To promote a pathway for creative ideas to become innovative solutions that are deployed at scale, leaders need to identify who the organizational Guardians are and facilitate early and regular conversations with the innovation team.  The Guardians may include in-house legal counsel, program budget controllers, or C-level executives.
  • The team government level: If an organization has initiated a significant innovation initiative, it may act more like a Pioneer in comparison to other governmental organizations that are more aligned with the Integrator, Driver, or Guardian personalities.  It is critical that leaders identify who the extra-organizational Guardians are that place process-based or oversight restrictions on activities that may arise from innovation initiatives and create pathways for early and regular interaction with those Guardians.

With the potential conflict levels identified, organizational leaders can move forward with mitigation plans.  As noted in the HBR article, there is value in pulling opposites closer, openly discussing differences, and asking Pioneers to think like Guardians (and vice versa).  In considering how to focus and structure these conversations, the three box innovation framework can be a useful guide.  Guardians operate most comfortably in Box 1 – Managing the Present.  Pioneers are constantly striving for Box 3 – Creating the Future.  The opportunity for productive conversation may best lie in Box 2 – Selectively Forgetting the Past.  The key to successful Box 2 conversations is differentiating between roots and chains.  Roots are foundational processes, approaches, rules, skills, etc. that nourish the health of the organization and would be severely damaging to its future success if cut (or neglected or circumvented).  Chains are artificial constructs that have developed over time because of the way things have always been done but that add limited value to the future health of the organization.  While at times difficult, chains must often be broken to free up the resources, permissions, and space to innovate in pursuit of Box 3 opportunities.  If Pioneers and Guardians can have candid discussions in Box 2 related to differentiating roots from chains, paths forward may be found that are more permissive of innovation while reducing the chances of future conflict.

The Trump Administration has already taken steps to promote Box 2 conversations that promote innovation.  In particular, the Presidential Executive Order on Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda establishes Regulatory Reform Task Forces led by Regulatory Reform Officers that are tasked with identifying regulations that are outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective and making recommendations to agency heads regarding their repeal, replacement, or modification.  The executive order also calls for the establishment of Joint Regulatory Reform Task Forces for entities staffed by officials from multiple agencies that work across government such as the Chief Acquisition Officers Council.  The task forces will be required to have difficult Box 2 conversations to differentiate what is a regulatory root that if cut could significantly damage good governance or the well-being of the American people from regulatory chains that have built up over time and are determined to be overly restrictive for the value they bring.  While these task forces are charged with identifying regulatory reforms that could reduce unnecessary burdens from federal regulations on state, local, and tribal governments along with small businesses, consumers, non-governmental organizations, and trade associates, they could also turn the lens internally to examine where legacy process and policy regulations are unnecessarily inhibiting innovation within the federal government.

The regulatory reform task forces provide one potential pathway for navigating the Guardian vs. Pioneer conflicts that inhibit innovation both across government and between government and the private sector.  However, to better institutionalize an environment that is conducive to the innovation required to meet President Trump’s call to do more with less, government leaders should seek to regularly facilitate the required Guardian / Pioneer Box 2 conversations at all three levels of potential conflict.  At the innovation team level, personality assessments can be used to identify Pioneers and Guardians and regular coordination meetings can be scheduled to anticipate and de-escalate potential conflicts.  At the organizational level, leaders can identify key points of contact representing Pioneer and Guardian parts of the organization and establish regular conversations with the focus on emerging opportunities, the potential barriers to success, and the roots or chains that may have to be navigated to move forward.  At the team government level, organization innovation leads can have candid conversations with their Guardians (e.g., OIG) to identify areas that may be more permissive for innovative actions while respecting those areas that are determined to be properly restrictive to maintain good governance and citizen well-being.  Third-party, unbiased conveners like ACT-IAC’s Institute for Innovation could be helpful in creating a safe space for those potentially challenging extra-organizational discussions. If implemented properly and with the necessary care to navigate the inherent personality conflicts, the multi-level conversations within and across government organizations could be highly informative and empowering in differentiating regulatory roots from chains for consideration by the reform task forces as they work to clear a path to leaner, more effective, and more innovative government operations.


Michael Whitaker, PhD

Michael “Whit” Whitaker is Vice President of Emerging Solutions for ICF. He was co-founder of Symbiotic Engineering and specializes in advancing organizational approaches to innovation. Dr. Whitaker has a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from the University of Colorado–Denver and an M.S. and a B.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Stanford University.