Agency Policies Gone Awry – Part 3

By on November 24, 2013 in Current Events, Leadership with 23 Comments

In this article, I’ll answer the question, “What should you do?” The answer is that, to effectively assess and continually improve performance, we must work together to continually reduce variationthere is no other way to improve quality. Policies are implemented through systems. People develop systems and individuals are imperfect, so the systems they create will be imperfect. Most of the time agencies’ results are due to the system and managers who own the system (We the People).

I appreciate the feedback to the comments on Part 2. One reader responded with the comment: “I like where you are taking this!” Other readers expressed concerns about:

  • Whistleblower protections or lack thereof
  • Lack of oversight of the poor and “diabolically inclined” managers
  • General frustrations about working in systems that will likely continue to produce results that reinforce the worst stereotypes of government work and workers

Another reader’s response reminded me of the importance of “candor” in identifying an issue or problem and the cultural expectation within the military to identify solutions and support the implementation of those solutions. So, this article is among my longest, as I reinforce the scope and context of the challenge and provide practical solutions for supporting the needed improvements.

The Bottom Line Up Front
The various agency management operating systems are not capable of continually producing the quality and quantity of service required and expected by the stakeholders (i.e., American citizens). Applying the framework provided by the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence can be an immediate and first step in implementing the needed cultural change. This framework, supplemented with the understanding and knowledge needed for managing variability, provides a way to support actions that result in the quality of service that will lead, in the words of the Founding Founders, to a more perfect union.

Summary of Key Points from Parts 1 and 2
In “Agency Policies Gone Awry – Part 1”, I introduced the role that culture can play in shaping attitudes, where mediocre and unacceptable performance is considered the norm.
In “Agency Policies Gone Awry – Part 2”, readers’ comments reinforced the cost of “whistleblowing”, which includes an adverse impact on careers. The article reinforced that the application of the Baldrige framework for performance excellence represents a systemic change that would support an agency’s transition to a culture where mediocrity is not the accepted norm. Improvement in the organizational culture, including higher quality of leadership, could prevent the conditions that lead to the need for whistleblowing. I also referenced examples where individuals and groups were successful in changing policies.

In the Washington Post article “Federal employee Mike Marsh’s mission: Getting himself fired, and his agency closed”, David A. Fahrenthold discusses a recent case of whistleblowing by a federal employee who happens to be an inspector general. This story reinforces that it is the responsibility of federal employees to communicate their ideas on how to improve quality and reduce costs. The story also reinforces the need for methods that provide an objective assessment on the effectiveness of policies, such as the methods advocated by the Coalition for Evidenced-Based Policy.

On a broader scale, waste is an inherent part of any system. In my article, “Individual and System Performance – Pass or Fail?”, I identify that the cost of poor quality (i.e., results from poor policies and inadequate systems) can range from 20% to 40% of the total budget—a cost that is considered a normal part of the culture but is viewed as outrageous by those paying the bill (i.e., taxpayers and federal employees who think like taxpayers).

Retaliation against the whistleblower can be the weapon of choice among individuals in management positions who have been corrupted by power and perceive the whistleblower as being disloyal to them and/or the agency. In fact, it is more disloyal to the organization for individuals to not blow the whistle than it is to remain silent. Marine veteran John M. Dowd, in his defense of a fellow marine who he believes was subject to misconduct by the Marine commandant, reinforced that loyalty to the institution takes precedence over loyalty to the individual in his statement: “I love the Corps and our system of justice,” he said. “I cannot abide subversion or corruption of either.”

Another case of systemic corruption was identified by the Washington Examiner watchdog team in the five-part series Just Sign Here: Federal Workers Max Out at Taxpayer Expense”. The watchdog team detailed the waste, fraud and abuse (including retaliation) within the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS). The watchdog team also posted the response from FMCS officials and solicited stories from federal employees on corruption within other agencies. Using the media (as opposed to resources within the government) for investigating waste, fraud and abuse is always an option for raising awareness for needed change.

OPM’s Succession Management Policy – Baby Boomers Need Not Apply?
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 administered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) prohibits employment discrimination against persons 40 years of age or older. Information available from Office of Personnel Management (OPM) from 2000 to 2012 indicates that employees over 40 represented over 70% of the workforce.
As I was researching Part 1 in this three-part series, it was interesting to read OPM’s policy on Succession Planning that I last accessed on August 14, 2013. This version identified a specific demographic, the Baby Boom Generation (which includes those people born between 1946-1964), described in context of a “problem”. The policy stated:

Problem: Baby Boomers are and will be retiring at record rates which equates to a loss of a large percentage of our Federal Leadership workforce. So, the question is – How do we keep the talent pool filled with innovative, creative, forward-thinking and dynamic individuals given under these” [sentence not completed].

An inference that can be drawn is that federal employees over 40 would not be considered part of the “talent pool … of innovative, creative, forward-thinking and dynamic individuals”, with equal opportunity for leadership, further career development and promotional opportunities. This policy is likely a contributing factor to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) results and Equal Opportunity Employment (EEO) cases referenced in Part 1, which include the following:

  • Only 3 out of 10 employees feel that their performance is recognized in a meaningful way and that promotions are based on merit
  • “FY 2011 also saw a continuance of a five-year upward trend in complaints alleging both reprisal and age discrimination. Also in FY 2011, the number of complaints filed with allegations of race (Black/African American) once again exceeded those complaints filed with allegations of disability (physical)”.

OPM’s “solutions” included the selection and development of candidates for future leadership positions, with the measure of effectiveness being “how many leadership positions are filled due to the organization’s leadership development strategy.”

The policy was creative in that it advocated that officials “project the talent, knowledge, skills and competencies needed for the future of an agency/organization.” This “projection” would require some competencies in strategic assessment and policy analysis, the results of which should be included in documentation supporting the agencies strategies. This level of analysis is typically not considered a competency within many agencies.

When the policy was recently updated, I was not too surprised to see that the reference to the over 40 (Baby Boom) demographic was removed.

When leaders endorse a policy that conveys the appearance of discrimination against one protected group, it opens the door for discrimination against all groups based not only on age, but also on factors that include gender, race, and disability.  Preventing the destructive effects of poor leadership and policies is why the military conducts command climate surveys to identify and immediately address the issues (including making the appropriate personnel changes) that detract from the morale, capability and mission readiness of the organization.

The U.S. military is recognized worldwide as a learning organization. In his monograph “Closing the Candor Chasm: The Missing Element of Army Professionalism”, Paul Paolozzi reinforces the importance of candor as a critical component of competence and professionalism of military and I might add civilian leaders as well. He identifies the “candor chasm” as the space between what is actually said or written to what is actually written or done. Paolozzi includes a paraphrase of Immanuel Kant’s belief that “when people avoid candor in order to curry favor with other people, they actually destroy trust, and in that way, they ultimately erode society.”

The intent of a policy can be discerned by assessing the results from that policy. Assessing the possible adverse, disparate or discriminatory impacts from OPM’s succession planning policies can be determined by reviewing an agencies’ leadership development and succession strategies, including an analysis of the profile (age, race, gender, disability) of the program graduates.
Depending on the degree of turnover and vacant positions within an agency and the “creativity” of agency managers in implementing OPM guidance, second and third order effects of such a policy could include inflation in grade levels, the number and type of positions, appraisals, bonuses, and awards. The effects could also include the addition of vacancy selection criteria skewed toward graduates of the leadership development programs.

Discriminatory practices could also have additional detrimental impacts. Having graduates of the leadership development program receive accelerated promotions without gaining the knowledge (i.e., experience, education and training) needed to achieve the level of leadership and technical competence expected by employees can undermine the employees respect for and confidence in the agency leadership. This, in turn, results in lower morale, capability and productivity in the near, mid and long term. Indicators of these conditions would be reflected in FEVS, Best Places to Work ratings, EEO and Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) complaints, performance (productivity) metrics, union grievances and whistleblower complaints, to name a few.

Ironically, the FEVS results that are summarized in the Best Places to Work ratings provide feedback on the quality of agency leadership that OPM’s policy on succession management was expected to improve. Below is a summary by size of the agency and range of scores. Is your agency improving in one or more categories every year or do the trends indicate mediocrity as the norm?

Best Places to Work – Range of Scores by Size of Agency

Agency Size

Total

Number

Highest

Score

Lowest

Score

Average

Score

Large

19

72.8

52.9

59.5

Mid-Size

22

83.3

46.8

60.0

Small A

29

84.3

32.7

65.8

Sub-Components

292

85.7

34.7

61.9

In my article “Sequestration and the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey“, I offer suggestions for addressing the results from the FEVS.

Taking Action to Fight Systemic Corruption

“…there is nothing more difficult and dangerous, or more doubtful of success, than an attempt to introduce a new order of things…” –Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Systems have built-in defenses. Filing complaints, grievances and pursuing civil action with the aim to challenge policies and practices can be time consuming and expensive and rarely (if ever) result in justice.

In his FedSmith.com series “The Best Qualified Person Got the Promotion… Right?”, Robert Benson summarized the EEO complaint process. Benson noted that the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) identifies the potential cost of discrimination for agencies. The cost includes providing full relief to “all” the individuals affected by the discrimination. In the case of a promotion action, this could include everyone who was on the list provided to the selecting official.

The EEOC reports that for FY 2011 (which is the most current information available), the Complaint Closures with Benefits averaged $10,998.76. If you take into account the plaintiff benefits identified in the CFR (if enforced), the settlements costs could easily reach 50 to 100 times the $10,998.76 average.
Employees can also file civil action, which brings the Justice Department into the process. It is estimated that only 2% of cases end up in court. Any settlements between the defendant (government agencies) and the plaintiff (individual filing the complaint/case) are confidential.

Given this confidentially, lack of transparency and relatively low cost if CFR-related penalties are not enforced, agencies have little incentive to assess the effects of policies to detect and prevent violation of laws and regulations, including second and third order effects.

Further, agencies may not even be accountable for paying the cost of the settlements. The Washington Examiner reports that the Feds are paying record amounts in lawsuits but may not be required to use their own funds, which “gives agencies little incentive to tread carefully.”

Perversely, agencies are incentivized to extend the length of cases, which can increase the costs to the taxpayers and complainant. In essence, this is retaliatory action against those who dare question policy and management actions and sends a message to the workforce about the high cost of doing an ethical thing. Such a strategy leads to complainants who cannot afford the legal expenses or who don’t have the patience for a prolonged fight to either drop the case or settle on terms more favorable to management, thus further enabling the continuation of what might be bad policies and corrupt behavior.

A case that is challenged using all available options could range from 3 to 5 years (or even longer), with plaintiff legal costs that could average $5,000 to $10,000 a year. This is an insignificant additional cost to the government if it loses the case in court. (Settlement terms to include reimbursed plaintiff legal expenses as a result of the court proceedings are public information.)

Although the investment and risk for the individual plaintiff can be significant, winning the case in court or through other avenues might lead to a policy change that results in cost avoidance, which could easily range in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The more insidious costs of bad policies are the destructive effects on the morale and productivity of the people who work in and on the system. Dr. W. Edwards Deming referred to these types of costs as devastating, with the most important costs being unknown and unknowable. This fact reinforces the justification of why continuous improvement should be considered a moral imperative.

Good People in a Bad System
Good is positive action and evil is harmful action that affects yourself and others. The paradox in management actions is that the individuals may not see themselves as part of the evil that they support through their actions and inactions.

In his New York Times article “The Banality of Systemic Evil”, Peter Ludlow reinforces the significance of systems in shaping behavior. Ludlow cites the research of Hannah Arendt and Robert Jackall on the evil that can be done when people play their “proper” roles in the system. The individuals may not be evil in their everyday lives but develop and follow a separate moral code in their roles within the organization.

Within a corporate bureaucracy, Jackall refers to the organization moral code as fundamental rules of corporate life. These rules include the following:

(1) Never go around your boss. (2) You tell your boss what he wants to hear, even when your boss claims that he wants dissenting views. (3) If your boss wants something dropped, you drop it. (4) You are sensitive to your bosses wishes so you anticipate what he wants; you don’t force him, in other words to act as a boss. (5) Your job is not to report something that your boss does not want reported, but rather to cover it up. You do your job and keep your mouth shut.

Ludlow goes on to observe that “there can be no expectation that the system will act morally of its own accord” and that “systems are optimized for their own survival.” Correcting the system “does not require rank or intelligence, just honesty of vision.”

Ludlow coined the term “Generation W”, which he identified as those people from ages 18 to 34 who represent the new generation of whistleblowers and leakers—70% of which “believed that Eric Snowden did a good thing in leaking the news of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program.”

Side note: As a former enlisted soldier and retired senior military intelligence officer, there are ways of working within the system to elevate concerns regarding issues that can include classified information. Granted, being tenacious in pursuing these avenues may not be career enhancing depending on the quality of leadership within the chain of command, but the consequences to the nation are less harmful and the individual will not end up in prison, like Private Bradley (Chelsea) Manning did, or need to flee to a foreign country to avoid prosecution, like Eric Snowden did.

Taking action to improve systems is not a generational issue. Deming (1900-1993) was among the first “whistleblowers” to identify the immorality of the American system of management. Deming made the following observation:

With the storehouse of skills and knowledge contained in its millions of unemployed, and with the even more appalling underuse, misuse, and abuse of skills and knowledge in the army of employed people in all ranks in all industries, the United States may be today the most underdeveloped nation in the world. (Out of the Crisis, p. 6).

To reinforce the previous discussion on candor, I believe civilian agency leaders, such as those within the Department of Defense (DoD), have their own “candor chasm” identified as the gap between the feedback from sources such as FEVS and EEOC reports and the belief expressed in the DoD’s Strategic Management Plan, which reinforced that “People are our most crucial asset.”

A Way Ahead
Employees have choices when faced with the adverse, mediocre, disparate and/or discriminatory impacts of agency policies. They include the options to remain oblivious or to pursue their self-interest by accepting the “organization moral code.” Employees can also quit (which is rare) or take action to change the policies.

If you believe that your organization should be improved, then support the application of the Baldrige framework for performance excellence. Successful application will result in better scores on the FEVS, higher scores in the Best Places to Work rankings and improved productivity.  As an individual, you will learn more about the criteria and can apply your knowledge to improve the quality of your contributions to agency performance.

If you think your organization is the exception (it is already excellent), I challenge you to initiate a Baldrige Collaborative Assessment. This assessment does support Government Accountability Office (GAO) guidance for conducting entity-level assessments.

If you are a federal manager, you need to realize that the number of whistleblowers (i.e., those employees with the courage to live up to their Oath of Office and use the means they have at their disposal for communicating allegations of waste, fraud and abuse) is only going to increase. I suggest that you eliminate “retaliation” if this is your weapon of choice and instead encourage employees to find and address the issues that might lead to whistleblowing. Have the courage to adopt the Baldrige performance management framework and to develop the knowledge needed to lead others in reducing variation.

© 2016 Timothy J. Clark. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Timothy J. Clark.

About the Author

Timothy J. Clark, is the author of Success Through Quality, Support Guide for the Journey to Continuous Improvement. He retired from the federal government with over 30 years of service. He is also a former enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army and retired at the rank of Colonel with over 30 years of combined service in the U.S Army National Guard and Army Reserve.

He is currently the Director of the Deming Application Network that supports leaders in transitioning to the application of better methods that will immediately result in higher levels of performance.

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