Roughly 20 years ago, a business writer argued “employees are the only sustainable source of competitive advantage.” Since then the importance of investing in human capital has been a constant theme in the business press. New books and articles appear regularly on strategies to strengthen employee commitment to the success of their employer. The best performers are valued assets. Accomplishments are recognized and rewarded.
By contrast government treats its employees as if they are part of the problem. Since John Berry’s departure as director of the Office of Personnel Management, the workforce has not had a vocal champion; pay increases have been denied for three years; the staff and resources needed to achieve the mission are being reduced; as a result workloads and job stress are increasing; the opportunities for learning and development have been cut; career plans have been derailed.
That reality was reflected in the latest OPM Employee Viewpoint Survey, which was conducted before the partial government shutdown last month. Employees have a reason to be angry. There is a scenario that suggests employee concerns could be ignored into the next administration, another three years or more.
The situation has been compounded by prominent reports of agency performance problems. The most recent, of course, is the failure of the Affordable Care Act website. People are proud to work for highly regarded, successful organizations, but the public rarely learns of the accomplishments across government.
Reports of government missteps dominate in the media. Positive reports are rare. The view that government is bloated, overpaid, and underworked has been repeated by critics for years — and unfortunately given credibility by respected media sources. The critics need to be answered. At a time when a high percentage of the public is anxious about their job and their family’s future, it’s not surprising that many are less than supportive of workers who until recently have had solid job security.
In an Oct. 31 Washington Post column called “On Leadership,” Tom Fox, the vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service, quoted an expert on workplace disruptions. The psychological toll starts with “anxiety, and fear and then anger and sadness. Next is the threat of loss . . . in terms of income, position, relationships or identity.” With future budget cuts it may well get worse. ‘Desk rage’ would be understandable. The column’s advice was directed to ‘federal managers and leaders’ but they are likely to be experiencing the same psychological problems. Managers at every level should be prepared to help their people deal with these problems.
Gallup’s survey database may be the most extensive on employees and their emotions at work. Their research on employee engagement extends over a decade. When employees are ‘engaged’ or emotionally committed, they perform at higher levels. When they are ‘actively disengaged’, the research shows “employees are more or less out to damage their company.” “They monopolize managers’ time; have more on-the-job accidents; account for more quality defects; are sicker; miss more days; and quit at a higher rate than engaged employees do.” As a guess, the actively disengaged have grown in number.
The engagement research is silent on employers in crisis. In the business world only companies on the verge of shutting down would be comparable. In a more typical situation, managers and their supervisory skills are the key employee engagement — but even the best managers could fail in this crisis. The Gallup research is also silent on how actively disengaged employees behave when they are locked in or fail to find a new job. Their frustration and anger make them a malignancy.
The Fox column ends with, “This game of Russian roulette . . . will take a toll on the federal workforce. The marker may not come due for 12, 24 or 36 months. There is a lag effect between traumatic events and when bad things happen.” But the end of the trauma is not yet in sight.
Government is a conglomerate of knowledge organizations, each with its own cultures and workforce concerns. As with other knowledge organizations, success depends on the capabilities and commitment of the workforce. Ideally each agency should be free to develop a workforce plan to strengthen and fully utilize employee capabilities.
The barrier is the civil service system. It’s widely acknowledged to be out of sync with current work management thinking and with labor market realities. It has been and will continue to be an impediment to change. It severely constrains the flexibility agencies need. Other countries have transitioned to decentralized human capital management.
There have been repeated recommendations to rethink civil service but that will require compromise. There can be no solution to the workforce problems triggered by the ongoing budget cuts until the decision is made to bite the bullet. Government needs to manage its employees as assets. Appropriately an article in the current McKinsey Quarterly is entitled, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
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."