Fear Not: The Case for Shared Services in Government

The Federal government, much like any other organization, either provides for itself or buys a wide range of overhead services to support its operations. Overhead is not a derogatory term – it is just the term that is applied to services that are necessary to support the mission of an agency. Missions do not get accomplished without overhead services. While overhead services such as Human Resources, Financial Management, or Contracting support follow laws and regulations that are remarkably consistent across agencies, most agencies have dedicated internal service providers. The result is a level of redundancy and cost that diverts scarce resources to overhead functions rather than agency missions. Faced with decreasing budgets and shocks such as sequestration, agencies can no longer afford to carry out business-as-usual with respect to common support services. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel challenged his Department and its stakeholders to “…challenge all past assumptions…” and “put everything on the table.”

“We need to challenge all past assumptions, and we need to put everything on the table.  For example, it is already clear to me that any serious effort to reform and reshape our defense enterprise must confront the principal drivers of growth in the department’s base budget – namely acquisitions, personnel costs, and overhead.”

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel – April 3, 2013

One good example of overhead services that whould be “on the table” is Human Resources/EEO. Looking only at the number of Federal employees in those occupations, we see 2% of the Federal workforce in the HR/EEO (41,929 employees) job series. Because both HR and EEO offices also employ people in other job series, such as IT, budget, and administration, my experience is that as many as a quarter of the people in HR offices are not in HR series. That means another half percent of the Federal workforce are HR in non-HR job series. The number may be higher. Assuming that conservative number, 2.5% of the Federal workforce exists to provide HR services to the government.

Federal Employees in HR/EEO Job Series

Job Series

# of Employees

Average Salary

Total Cost

201

27,698

$84,957

$2,353,138,986

203

11,480

$43,199

$495,924,520

260

2,751

$93,971

$258,514,221

$3,107,577,727

+ 30% Fringe

932,273,318

Total Cost

$4,039,851,045

 

If we look only at the costs of the Human Resources/EEO workforce (in salary and fringe benefits cost of employees in the 201 (HR Specialist), 203 (HR Clerk and Assistant) and 260 (Equal Employment Opportunity) job series is more than $4 billion. HR/EEO organizations also employee people in other job series, such as budget, clerical and information technology, and the common “catch-all” 301 job series. Use of the 301 series for HR has increased in recent years as a way of reducing the apparent number of HR professionals, and to support grades that are often not as easily obtained in the more prescriptive 201, 203 and 260 job series. In addition to the non-HR/EEO job series, HR/EEO service organizations also purchase contract support. The number of dollars devoted to such services is difficult to identify, government-wide it is certainly in the hundreds of millions and perhaps more. Because the costs of common services are buried in agency budgets, the number is rarely examined as a single cost. The time has come to begin that examination and find ways to reduce the cost to a more manageable level.

There are many side effects of failure to consolidate overhead services. Chief among them is the lack of money for training staff and modernizing systems and processes. An agency with redundant overhead organizations will cut costs by taking away everything but salary dollars and leaving the overhead functions with few resources to do anything other than pay their employees. It is rare to find an HR office that is adequately resourced, even when the agency is spending more on such services than would seem necessary. The agency wonders why it is not getting great support, the employees in the support organizations wonder why they cannot get training or adequate tools to do their work, and everyone wonders why it does not get better. An agency, its employees and its HR staff are far better off with one or two well-staffed, trained and resourced HR offices than they are with ten marginally staffed and resourced organizations that struggle to provide good service.

I have heard people saying for years that services cannot be consolidated because their agency is unique. While it may make us feel better to say we are unique, the truth is most agencies are not. The plethora of different rules, processes and systems is the result of choice rather than absolute necessity. Although agencies tend to create their own operating policies and directives for HR services, those rules are usually created because they can be, not because of a compelling business argument. Not only that, attempts to consolidate HR/EEO services are typically met with fierce resistance. When the Department of Defense proposed consolidating HR services in the 1980s, one of the services responded with the objection that their civilian HR services were at the heart of their warfighting capabilities. When faced with that type of opposition, the proposal was dropped. Eventually, the DoD elected to “regionalize” its HR services in a way that protected most of the parochial interests that objected to the previous consolidation proposal. The result was a model that few DoD leaders and virtually no one in HR would consider to be effective or efficient.

When the Defense Logistics Agency proposed a real consolidation of HR services, Pentagon officials supported it as a means of seeing if consolidation could actually work. Studies of the DLA HR transformation have shown it was completely successful, reduced costs, and dramatically improved the quality of services. The proposed transformation was not universally accepted in DLA. In fact, many affected managers, field Commanders and Senior Executives were vehemently opposed. One SES referred to it as “the most brutal proposal I’ve ever seen.” Another said he would rather have bad service he controlled than good service someone else controlled. One General said it was doomed to failure and would generate no savings, even if it could be implemented, which he doubted. They were wrong. Not only did the consolidation work, it saved money and provided more resources for the consolidated offices to get their work done. Many of the savings came from elimination of redundant management structures. Rather than having seven HR offices, each with an HR Director, staff directors, and support teams for each, there were two HR offices. Rather than having seven sets of HR tools, we had one. Rather than having seven sets of operating procedures, we had one. DLA is not the only example of effective HR consolidation. Agencies as diverse as the Department of the Treasury, NASA, the Department of Commerce and the Department of the Interior have had similar successes. That kind of consolidation and cost reduction is not radical. It is not risky, and it is not new and different. It is a tried and proven approach to delivering services.

What was driving those objections, and what bold leaders in government will face today, is fear. Fear of loss of control. Fear of loss of influence. Fear of failure. Fear of services that are worse than before. Overcoming those fears is critical if government is going to transform itself today. If those fears drive debates about overhead services, imagine how people will respond when asked to do the same thing for mission services. How will any real consolidation of services, elimination of redundant missions and consolidation of agencies take place? We have proven in multiple agencies that support services can be effectively and efficiently consolidated, yet that knowledge has not been translated into government wide measures to dramatically transform support services. It is time to take that step.

Leader Development is Not a Luxury

Federal News Radio’s Jason Miller had a story on April 2 with the headline “Better trained supervisors key to improving morale.” Jason reported on WFED’s CHCO survey and an interview Francis Rose conducted with NASA CHCO Jeri Buchholz. The CHCO survey and Jeri stressed the need for leader development as a means of improving employee morale. I believe Jeri and my former CHCO colleagues are spot on. Absent significant investment in developing the leadership abilities of supervisors, the Federal government is going to have morale and performance issues for years to come.

I have heard comments from folks who say the emphasis on leader development and the role of leaders in driving Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) results is an indictment of supervisors. Nothing could be further from the truth. If it is an indictment of anything, it is the culture that says investing in supervisor training is a waste of time and money. That culture has resulted in budget cuts for training programs, a lack of emphasis on developing the so-called “soft skills” of leadership, and a belief that mission-related training is always more valuable than leader development.  Such beliefs harm agencies terribly. Here is why.

Supervisors drive culture and morale. Other than demographic questions, the FEVS has 84 questions. Of those, 65 are under the control of supervisors and managers. Here is are the 2013 FEVS Questions with the 65 highlighted. So why not blame the supervisors? Easy – it is generally not their fault. For the most part, people are selected for supervisory jobs based upon their technical skills. If we are filling a basket weaver supervisor, we generally look at the basket weavers and pick the one the selecting official believes is the best basket weaver. In many cases there is little real consideration, and certainly no structured assessment, of that person’s leadership abilities. Once they are selected, we put them into a job that requires a completely different skill set from basket weaving and give them little, if any, real training to develop that new skill set. Many agencies send supervisors to a class that is called supervisory training, but it is really just training supervisors on the basics of writing job descriptions, using the rating system, and other basic HR-related skills. The “soft skills” are notably absent in many of these programs. So – we select people who are very good at what they do, but not at what we are selecting them for, do little to develop them, and then blame them for our problems. It seems that is grossly unfair to the supervisors and the people they supervise.

It isn’t that there is no interest by supervisors in real training. At the Defense Logistics Agency, we implemented a comprehensive program for newly selected supervisors. It was so successful, we started getting complaints from people who had been in supervisory jobs prior to the program’s start asking why they could not have the same training. It was clear these folks wanted to do a good job. They wanted the training. Our response was to create a “retrofit” program to give them similar training.

If there is clearly a demand and a need, why does real leader development not happen? For many agencies, it is because leader development is not treated as a budget priority. With shrinking budgets and everyone competing for a diminishing pot of dollars, tradeoffs have to be made. Training has not traditionally been viewed as one of the priorities, and leader development has drawn the short straw when the limited training dollars are allocated. There is often a mistaken belief that it would appear selfish for agency leadership to devote dollars to training supervisors when their employees are not getting the training they need. I believe that view, while it is based on the best of intentions, actually harms the very employees it is trying to protect. If employee views are so dramatically shaped by the quality of supervisors as shown by the FEVS, investing in leaders is investing in employees. In addition to the benefits for employees, there is also a benefit to customers of the agency. At DLA, we conducted both employee and customer surveys. We found a very strong correlation between our employees’ views and how our customers rated the quality of support they got from DLA. On some questions, such as “I have the information I need to do my job,” the correlation coefficient was +.90 or better. It was clear that how we treated our employees was directly related to how our customers perceived the service they got from DLA.

With supervisory skills being so directly related to the FEVS results, and employee perceptions being so directly related to customer outcomes, it is clear that developing leaders is not a luxury. It is not a selfish use of precious resources for supervisors and managers’ own benefit. It can and will drive agency results and make the government a better employer. That makes it a necessity.