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Government may need years to recover

Oct. 11, 2013 - 05:03PM   |  
By HOWARD RISHER   |   Comments

Last week Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, published a column in The Washington Post titled, “Congress is harming the federal workforce.” Stier has been one of the very few champions for the federal workforce.

It is very likely that the problem now goes well beyond poor morale. For federal employees, the bad news started almost three years ago when President Obama announced the pay freeze. This year, sequestration triggered the first cuts that will limit possible pay increases through 2021. In February, the White House told agencies to slow down hiring, curtail travel and stop paying bonuses unless legally required. At the start of October, more than 800,000 workers were furloughed. Others have worked without knowing when they will be paid. Now the prospect of a budget deal is likely to increase job uncertainty. That’s a long stretch of bad news.

Studies of adverse work experience like this in the private sector and in other public organizations have found it triggers increased anxiety and stress, which grows worse over time. Job loss, for example, has been found to be as detrimental to mental health as divorce and the death of a loved one. Those studies have shown the impact is actually similar for workers who keep their jobs.

Stress and anxiety contributes to increased absenteeism, resignations and retirements. It also contributes to what has been referred to as “presenteeism” which is showing up but working at less than normal productivity. Employee engagement and performance decline in extended periods of stress and anxiety.

Stier’s column reported that agencies have experienced a loss of more than 455,000 workers since fiscal 2009. That is a brain drain that will take years to replace. Federal careers are far less attractive today.

Government has few supporters

Not long ago the Pew Research Center posted an article discussing the public’s view of government with the title, “Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor.” Their most recent surveys show 26 percent are angry and 51 percent are frustrated with government. Voters have “little or no confidence” in federal workers.

Several surveys have shown the public believes federal workers are overpaid and less qualified — “the new privileged elite class,” to borrow a title from an article in U.S. News & World Report. The public’s view has been reinforced by “fed bashing” by elected officials and by critics who condemn the civil service system for automatic pay increases, for making it difficult to fire poor performers, and for overly generous benefits.

An added element is that technology now makes databases readily accessible for analyses of public pay and benefits. Conservative think tanks have published several studies showing federal pay and benefits exceed private sector levels. A 2012 report of the Congressional Budget Office reached the same conclusion. Critical articles on federal salaries and bonuses have appeared in newspapers and magazines and reported by TV pundits.

No one, it seems, has developed convincing statistics to refute those claims. The 2012 report from the Federal Salary Council shows the federal pay gap has grown significantly during the pay freeze but in the current climate it was essentially ignored.

It’s unfortunate, but the evidence suggests federal workers should not expect much public support.

Looking ahead: Federal managers will be key

With a budget agreement, the public may expect agencies to revert to business as usual but with reduced resources; that is unrealistic. Employees are hardly going to have the same level of commitment. Morale will not snap back. The attrition means expertise was lost. Jobs will need to be redefined. Working relationships will be in a state of flux. Workloads are more than likely going to be higher for an extended period. Organizational change is never easily or quickly assimilated.

Budget cuts have spared few operations; the need for change could be widespread. That will trigger a need for leadership at all levels. Technology, of course, will be important, but there are no panaceas on the horizon. To restate a truism from industry, performance in government is a people management problem.

Research by Gallup and others shows managers and supervisors are keys to employee engagement and to high performance. But managers themselves are no doubt demoralized by the past three years.

Their situation is compounded by the failure of agencies to invest in the effectiveness of managers and supervisors. They have to a degree been forgotten – the proverbial stepchild. Training has been inadequate, and there have been few role models. Incentives for improved performance are virtually nonexistent.

New hires from the millennial generation will present new challenges. Seasoned employees who have become disgruntled could be difficult to manage. With the increased attrition, supervisors and managers new to those roles will be looking for help.

The 1990-91 recession prompted companies to adopt what were then radical changes in the organization and management of work. The world of work is very different today. We know empowered employees can perform at much higher levels. Managers need the skills to tap fully their capabilities.

Howard Risher is a consultant and writer on federal pay and performance issues. He was the managing consultant for the studies leading to the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and is author of “Planning Wage and Salary Programs.”

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