Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey: The Price of Mistrust

“There’s a world of difference between insisting on someone’s doing something and establishing an atmosphere in which that person can grow into wanting to do it.”  Fred Rogers (of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood)

Agencies are releasing their 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) results and many of them are not pretty. Here are results from a few agencies:

Looking at DoD as an example, the results for 2014 are lower than those for 2013 for more than half of the questions. The numbers in other agencies are not much better.  The FEVS questions cover a wide range of issues, but the ones that concern me most this year are those regarding agency leadership. Saying they are not pretty is an understatement. Here is how they look in agencies that represent 65% of the Federal work force:

2014 to 2013 FEVS Result Comparison

These numbers might lead someone to conclude that employees simply have poor opinions of their bosses, but the FEVS also includes questions regarding how employees view their supervisors and those numbers are significantly better. For example, the question “Overall, how good a job do you feel is being done by your immediate supervisor?” got the following positive responses:

  • Department of Defense   –   69.5%
  • DHS   –   63.1%
  • Interior   –   66.7%
  • Veterans Affairs   –   64.5%

Some of the difference can be attributed to familiarity. Employees see and talk with their supervisors every day, but may rarely (or never) have a conversation with higher ranking leaders. Regardless of the reason, the fact is that employees are reporting they do not have great trust and confidence in their leaders and the numbers are heading in the wrong direction. Some of the numbers are shocking. Only DoD was able to muster more than 50% positive responses for “I have a high level of respect for my organization’s senior leaders” and “Managers promote communication among different work units.” None of the agencies broke 60% on “Managers communicate the goals and priorities of the organization.” Think about that. How can an employee work to accomplish the agency’s goals if managers do not communicate what they are? Do we expect them to just stumble blindly into accomplishing them?

Not knowing where the agency wants to go is just one of the consequences of the trust and confidence issues the FEVS reveals. Mister Rogers was right – we have to create an environment where people want to work. A workforce that does not think much of its leaders can be pushed only so far. It will eventually have problems with productivity, recruiting high quality talent, customer service and other factors that are driven by employee engagement. Trust and confidence in leadership can also be a leading indicator that presages drops in other FEVS questions. If this trend continues, it is likely to drag all of the results even farther down. At some point, maintaining morale and productivity will become increasingly difficult. The downward spiral has to be stopped soon. Stopping it will take concerted actions by the key players. Here are a few ideas that should be considered.

  • Link manager and executive performance goals directly to agency strategies and objectives. One reason managers do not adequately communicate goals and priorities is that many of them do not have performance plans that are tied to the overall agency objectives. If manager performance plans always contained that type of linkage, managers would have a more personal stake in communicating those goals to their subordinates. Failure to communicate would decrease the probability that they could accomplish the objectives in their performance plans.
  • Conduct regular reviews of the organization’s progress in meeting goals. When I was HR Director for the Defense Logistics Agency, I implemented a monthly In-Progress Review for all of our critical programs. The first few were rough – they came in barely aware of the status of their programs and unprepared to discuss anything in detail. After a few painful meetings, people came in ready to discuss status, issues they were facing, support they might need, and any problems that needed to be addressed. We went from struggling to implement programs to being able to successfully develop and deploy new initiatives.
  • Create cross-functional and cross-organizational teams as a normal operating process. Too many organizations tolerate stovepipes that operate as though they are islands. Those stovepipes will never go away on their own. They are too comfortable for their inhabitants and give some managers a sense of control and power. Sharing information is viewed as weakening that power. The truth is that sharing information makes the entire organization more effective. Agencies can improve their performance by ensuring that program teams have representation from multiple organizations with diverse skill sets and views.
  • Invest in Leader Development programs for managers and executives. “Supervisory training” is common in Federal agencies – usually taking the form of a 40-hour or less course that is heavily focused on the HR rules and policies managers need to know. That training is typically focused on new supervisors. Less common are programs that focus on improving the skills of managers and executives. I have heard too many people tell me “Senior Executives don’t need training.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The roles of executives and supervisors are different. We often assume that a newly-minted SES has all of the skills he or she needs when the new SES is wondering if s/he is the right person for the job. If we want to see improvements in how senior leaders are perceived, we have to develop those leaders.
  • Do not exempt political appointees from leader development programs. Few agencies invest in training for political appointees. The Obama Administration has a program that provides appointees with an initial orientation, but once they get to their agencies, formal training is rare. Given the lack of government experience most appointees have, agencies should identify critical skills and conduct training to fill skill gaps.
  • Hire better leaders. This may seem a bit too obvious, but 30+ years in Federal HR tell me it does not always happen. The very best leader development strategy is to hire leaders who need less development. Senior manager and executive vacancies should be filled using processes that focus on rigorous assessment of skills. Most selection processes have such questionable validity that they are only a little better than random chance. For example, most agencies use unstructured interviews. The correlation coefficient (a 0.0 – 1.0 measure of the relationship between the assessment and performance) for unstructured interviews is typically reported by researchers as being in the .20 range. Structured interviews and other more valid assessments techniques are more likely to produce selectees who are able to perform.

Unless agencies begin to take steps such as these, it is unlikely we will see significant improvement in FEVS scores. They will continue to fall and the downward spiral will continue until the Federal government becomes a toxic workplace. We cannot afford to let that happen.

 

Is it All or Nothing on General Schedule Reform?

Last week the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report on the General Schedule. The report, “OPM Needs to Improve the Design, Management, and Oversight of the Federal Classification System” outlines eight key attributes of a modern classification system and assesses the degree to which the General Schedule aligns with those attributes. The eight are:

  • Internal equity. All employees with comparable qualifications and responsibilities for their respective occupations are assigned the same grade level.
  • External equity. All employees with comparable qualifications and responsibilities are assigned grade levels and corresponding pay ranges comparable to the nonfederal sector.
  • Transparency. A comprehensible and predictable system that employees, management, and taxpayers can understand.
  • Flexibility. The ease and ability to modify the system to meet agency-specific needs and mission requirements, including modifying rates of pay for certain occupations to attract a qualified workforce, within the framework of a uniform government-wide system.
  • Adaptability. The ease and ability to conduct a periodic, fundamental review of the entire classification system that enables the system to evolve as the workforce and workplace changes.
  • Simplicity. A system that enables interagency mobility and comparisons with a rational number of occupations and clear career ladders with meaningful differences in skills and performance, as well as a system that can be cost-effectively maintained and managed.
  • Rank-in-position. A classification of positions based on mission needs and then hiring individuals with those qualifications.
  • Rank-in-person. A classification of employees based on their unique skills and abilities.

GAO recognized that some of these attributes appear to be in conflict with one another. For example, classifying positions based upon rank-in-position and based upon rank-in-person appear to be polar opposites. GAO also criticizes the Office of Personnel Management for not having adequate oversight of GS classification, not updating standards frequently enough, and not adequately resourcing the program. OPM partially concurred with most of GAO’s recommendations, but did not concur on the issue of developing a strategy to systematically track and prioritize updates to occupational standards.

Both GAO and OPM positions have merit. GAO is correct that the GS system is outdated and overly complex. They are right that OPM has not adequately resourced the program. They are right that OPM should address the shortcomings of the GS system sooner rather than later. OPM is correct in saying it does not need a new process to get classification standards written and updated more regularly. OPM also said it has only 6 full time classification policy staff. GAO says OPM has to make tradeoffs the same as any other agency.

That last point is one that I think is important. Yes, OPM has to make tradeoffs. I have not hesitated to criticize OPM when it is off track. In this case, I think they are in a no-win situation. The agency’s recent budget requests show OPM’s appropriated dollars are significantly less than they have been in the past. The agency operates more on revolving funds than appropriations. They also have trust fund money that covers management of retirement and insurance programs. Those color-of-money distinctions are important, because they limit the number of people OPM can devote to policy and oversight work. While the agency has over 5,000 employees, less than 20% of them can be assigned policy, oversight and agency management tasks. That puts OPM in the position of playing management whack-a-mole with priorities. If they decide to devote far more resources to classification, they will have to come from other programs, leading to those programs being under resourced.

GAO’s Recommendations

GAO’s report established a good set of criteria for an effective classification system. It also made three recommendations for executive branch action:

  • Working through the CHCO Council, and in conjunction with key stakeholders such as the Office of Management and Budget, unions, and others, should use prior studies and lessons learned from demonstration projects and alternative systems to examine ways to make the GS system’s design and implementation more consistent with the attributes of a modern, effective classification system. To the extent warranted, develop a legislative proposal for congressional consideration.
  • Develop cost-effective mechanisms to oversee agency implementation of the classification system as required by law.
    • Develop a strategy to systematically track and prioritize updates to occupational standards.
    • Develop a strategy that will enable OPM to more effectively and routinely monitor agencies’ implementation of classification standards.

The first recommendation is the most critical, because it could negate the need for at least one of the other two recommendations. In recent years the CHCO Council has become an effective means of driving government human capital policy. A CHCO Council working group, partnering with OMB and with unions (at the national level), could develop a set of policy recommendations that would make the current classification process far less complex, without changing the underlying laws. That last point is critical – the likelihood of significant Civil Service reform that is enacted by the Congress is remote, due to the combination of Congressional dysfunction and a lack of appetite for Civil Service reform.

Reform Does Not Require Congress to Act

How would we dramatically change GS classification without rewriting the law? Most people think the highly complex GS system is entirely a creation of the Classification Act of 1949 (as amended). It is true that the Classification Act created the General Schedule and defines each of the 15 GS grade levels. Much of the complexity (23 occupational families and 420 job series) comes from policy decisions made by OPM and others in the 65 years since the Classification Act passed. There is no legal requirement to have 420 job series. OPM creates new series when it determines they are necessary, is asked by the White House to do so, gets statutory direction, or they are requested by agencies. A great example is Cyber Security. There is a lot of pressure (including in the intro of the GAO report) to create a Cyber Security job series. OPM has not done so, and with good reason. At the Department of Homeland Security we had a need for more Cyber Security professionals. They were not in a single job series and could not be. Cyber Security is a complex field that includes Computer Scientists, Network and Systems Engineers, Security Specialists, Digital Forensics Specialists, Program Managers, Intelligence Specialists, and about 10 more categories. A single job family cannot address so many different positions that have radically different duties and qualifications requirements. In fact, GAO points out that the use of 420 job series adds unnecessary complexity to the GS system.

Where we need to go is in the opposite direction. The number of job series should be reduced by at least half, and more likely by three quarters. One reason OPM cannot maintain current standards for all of the jobs is that there are too many of them. GAO also points out that the stove piping of jobs into narrow series may hamper career growth. So – we have too many series, we cannot maintain the classification standards because of that, and the number limits agency flexibility on reassigning staff. It also makes for an arduous and overly complex hiring process for applicants from outside government.

If the number of job series is reduced to a more manageable number (I suggest no more than 100), we could achieve most of the objectives of GAO’s eight attributes of a modern classification system. Even some of the apparently conflicting attributes can be addressed. For example, on the surface it appears we cannot have a system that includes both rank-in-person and rank-in-position attributes. But we can. Take a look at the Research Grade Evaluation Guide (RGEG) published by OPM. The RGEG includes 4 classification factors:

  1. Research Assignment
  2. Supervisory Controls
  3. Guidelines and Originality, and
  4. Contributions, Impact, and Stature

The RGEG recognizes that “Work commonly expands commensurate with the researcher’s motivation, capability, and creativity.” Evaluation of factor 4 is based upon the researcher’s accomplishments rather than a rigid standard based upon the job itself. The RGEG recognizes that it is difficult to separate the person from the work the person does. OPM could use a similar approach to incorporate both rank-in-person and rank-in-position into new classification standards. The RGEG also covers research in many fields – there is not an RGEG for Physics, one for Chemistry, one for medicine, etc. OPM could use a similar approach with multi-series standards to dramatically reduce the number of classification standards it has to write and maintain. For example, a STEM Grade Evaluation Guide could cover many STEM positions. An Administrative Grade Evaluation Guide could cover financial management, human resources, procurement and other administrative positions.

Benefits of Administrative Reform

Administrative reform is faster, more achievable, and less likely to veer off into Fed bashing than a statutory solution might be. It maintains stability in the legal framework of the Civil Service, yet addresses the Adaptability feature in GAO’s 8 attributes. It achieves Simplicity, adopts both Rank-in-Person and Rank-in-Position attributes, and should also improve Internal Equity. It certainly demonstrates Flexibility as well. While we may not be able to get to a completely modern classification system without Congressional action, we can certainly improve on what we have today. By pursuing an administrative rather than statutory solution, OPM can begin to rapidly address many of the shortcomings of the existing system. The points of view of key stakeholders, such as unions and the Senior Executives Association, can be taken into account, as can those of good government advocates such as the Partnership for Public Service and the National Academy of Public Administration. The CHCO Council can drive the process, ensuring the resulting changes are implementable and consistent with accomplishing agency missions. Rather than waiting for the day when Civil Service reform might be achievable in Congress, we can act now. Why wait??