President Obama waded into the frayed relationship between agency managers and unions in 2009, determined to make repairs. He resurrected labor-management partnerships and relations are indeed improved.
But the payoff in terms of improved performance and effectiveness, so far, has yet to materialize.
More time is needed, say champions of the partnerships, including Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry and the union leaders. That may be true since it has taken considerable time simply to rebuild the trust and respect lost between the two sides from the many bitter labor-management fights that marked the previous administration.
But Obama's labor-management partnerships must be recalibrated to ensure they are more effective and so that expectations of all sides involved are honestly managed. First, career front-line managers need to be represented in the hundreds of labor-management forums created at agencies and operational units across government. Currently, some do not include them because either unions or top managers — such as at the Social Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration — objected to their presence.
A key purpose of the labor-management forums is to promote trust, collaboration and a better performing operation. Excluding career managers from the forums works against that goal and, in fact, undermines labor-management relations.
At the same time, Berry and Deputy Director of Office of Management and Budget Jeffrey Zients, who together oversee Obama's partnership initiative, have to stop pressing agency heads to open up to union bargaining so-called "permissive subjects" — such as the number, grades and qualifications of employees who are assigned to particular tasks or the technology that is used by employees. Obama wisely decided not to mimic President Clinton in mandating that these topics be subject to mandatory bargaining. Nevertheless, Zients and Berry are pressing agency heads hard to bargain over these topics. Managers are rightly concerned that bargaining over permissive subjects will undermine their ability to effectively manage their operations. Doing so will undermine their accountability, authority and agility as managers and slow government operations down significantly.
The labor-management partnerships should be about improving relations, dialogue and performance, not about needlessly reducing the authority of federal managers held accountable for their operation's effectiveness.