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Editorial: A tough test — and opportunity — for managers

Oct. 14, 2012 - 02:53PM   |  
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The long-awaited flood of federal retirements is here. That was expected. Not as expected was a startling slowdown in hiring at the same time.

Worse, in the wake of a two-year pay freeze and in anticipation of mandatory, across-the-board budget cuts, the quit rate is also on the rise.

So beginning last year, for the first time since 1999, the federal workforce is actually shrinking.

The short-term result for most managers may well be a double stress burger with a side of heartburn.

Critical positions remain vacant, extra work falls to those left behind, and overstressed workers start wondering if they, too, should seek other employment.

Managers across government know they cannot hire their way out of this problem, but must manage their way out. That means seizing this opportunity to reinvent operations, implement succession plans, and set clear priorities for what must be done first and what can be set aside for later.

Metrics are essential. Managers can’t improve productivity if they don’t know how to measure it. Whether it’s counting case loads, completion rates, application backlogs, inspections or report output — or a host of other possibilities — managers need that information first. Next, they need to understand the factors that limit their workers’ productivity, and whether simple technology solutions could make a difference. If an inspector can only write a report once he returns to the office, rather than from the field, for example, that may limit the number of reports he can complete.

Finally, managers must be forever on the lookout for better ways to accomplish the task, which may mean investigating how workers actually accomplish their work, rather than imagining how it’s supposed to be done.

Legacy systems that can’t share data with other systems, and that require large, specialized staffs to keep them running, need to be replaced. Common, integrated systems that help agencies link up with other parts of the government to share critical data need to be installed.

Critical knowledge must be retained through knowledge-management programs designed to capture valuable institutional knowledge before senior employees retire and take that knowledge with them. Phased retirements, when they become available, will be one way to do that.

This new era is like old age, which Bette Davis famously said wasn’t for sissies. The challenges facing federal managers today are enormous.

But this is where smart, proactive, creative managers can truly test their mettle. Mindful of their priorities, the best will do better than survive. They’ll thrive.

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