“Develop a long-term workforce reduction plan.” Again we see the emphasis on “long term.” The memo requires agencies to determine what the right numbers and grades of employees should be, rather than simply looking at previous budgets. It directs agencies to revise their organizations, delayer them, and pay particular attention to “deputy positions, lower level chief of staff positions, special projects, and management analysts that may duplicate the work performed in such areas as procurement, human resources, and senior management.” This section was written by someone who has worked in the federal government. That last section was a direct swipe at the “shadow” staff in many agencies that act as go-betweens between managers and service providers. The Trump administration is not the first to try to solve the “shadow office” problems. My guess is they will not be the last. Playing whack-a-mole with shadow staffs is bureaucratic game that is rarely satisfying to any of the participants.
Shared services also get a mention in the memo. As I have written before, there is a good case to be made that the government buys the same services far too many times. Agencies are encouraged to look at “alternative service delivery models” and to “streamline mission support functions.” There is nothing new in that recommendation, but the memo does encourage use of outsourcing, insourcing and other options that would provide “greater efficiency while maintaining or improving quality.” The nod to insourcing is a bit of a surprise, but given that some of the better shared services organizations are in government agencies, it is a good idea. The overall move to more shared services is sound, and is a good example of using a business-like approach that can work effectively. The memo also encourages use of “Best in Class” contract vehicles. It avoids the false binary choice between insourcing and outsourcing and recognizes that there are many ways to deliver shared services effectively. Those who argue such work should always be done in-house may be unhappy, as might a handful of large companies that advocate for outsourcing everything to them. All told, this section of the memo is a common sense approach that should not draw too much criticism.
“Streamline policy creation by eliminating the common tendency to recraft/restate policy for a component or regional office.” Another provision written by someone with experience in government, this one is addressing the all too common tendency of people at every level of an agency to create “policy” documents that are not policy are rarely necessary. It is a good way to eliminate unnecessary work.
Plan to maximize employee performance. This section focuses on steps agencies can take to increase performance, with the emphasis very heavily on dealing with poor performers. Among other things, it requires agencies to update their policies on dealing with poor performance and conduct, limiting the use of administrative leave, providing transparency in the performance improvement plan (PIP) process, training managers and supervisors, building accountability in manager performance plans, and establishing “real-time manager support mechanisms.” All of those are reasonable proposals, but that last part is the most significant. One of the biggest problems with dealing with poor performance and misconduct is that managers often get no support when they try to do it. Senior political appointees often want no controversy, so they want problems to just go away. Lawyers often want to settle every case. Every step of the way, there is another hurdle. It is no wonder that dealing with poor performers is a perennial issue in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. These support mechanisms have a good chance of making a difference and are an excellent idea.
While dealing with poor performers is a great idea and would probably win praise from a wide range of people, what was missing from the memo is dealing with good performers. The percentage of federal employees who should be fired because of their conduct or performance is most likely small. Even if we take a huge percentage – say 10% – that are problem employees, then deal with them effectively, we are left with the remaining 90%. Those are the folks who get the government’s work done. How they are doing, and how they are treated, is more likely to have a significant impact on government performance. Even if you take into account the demotivating effect of poor performers, the fact is that the good employees do the work. They need good training. They need recognition when they do a great job. They need to be treated as the valuable contributors that they are. Good employers in the private sector recognize that an act accordingly. Let’s hope there is more to come on this issue.