The Good, Bad and Ugly Of Personnel Reform

Observations on proposed personnel reforms.

As expected, the Defense Department has followed suit on personnel reform started by the Department of Homeland Security. Which means that change is coming to a department near you in the coming months as well. While last week’s announcement of the proposed reforms for DoD didn’t exactly catch anyone by surprise, is pleased to offer a few observations and random thoughts on the proposed reforms.

– Massive overhaul. In case the new system doesn’t work well, no harm no foul since only a few people will be affected – well, only around 750,000 or so! Couldn’t the administration have started with a smaller agency and worked its way up?

– Changes are definitely necessary, but are they the right ones? To say that the federal personnel system is outdated and flawed is akin to announcing, with a straight face, that the sun rises each day. Overhauling the federal personnel system, with this initial start in DHS and in DOD, is certainly long overdue. For far too long, ancient pay and performance management systems have resulted in the outstanding performers being paid the same as the poor performers. The question will be whether the changes advocated are the right ones. Before spreading these reforms to the rest of the federal government, it may be worth following Sen. George Voinovich’s (R-Ohio) suggestion to use caution and actually monitor some of the results before implementing the reforms government-wide.

– Not everyone is happy. Really, there’s no way around it, unions are losing power. In an environment in which perception often means reality, just the perception of lost union negotiating power will be difficult to overcome at the table, when they are even allowed there. Union strength in the government has ebbed and flowed over the last 25 years under various administrations (and not all based on the normal partisan political flavors either) – but what hasn’t been seen in a long time is a concerted move to limit the role of unions regarding the day-to-day work. The new federal labor relations mantra? Act first. Bargain later.

– When dissension is ripe, it’s always prosperous to be an attorney (see previous). As the administration was simply uttering the words “personnel reform” the unions were already announcing their intent to sue. What’s interesting to note is that all the while DHS, DOD and OPM officials were bragging about meeting with stakeholders and unions throughout the information-gathering stage, once the announcement came out, the unions acted as if the proposals had landed from another planet.

– Be careful what you ask for. Managers need to learn to manage. So here’s the deal — Managers in the labor relations program have been whining about this forever – “we can’t make the changes we need to make because of unions.” Well, guess what? The bluff has been called, so to speak. Now it’s time to put up or shut up. Or, more precisely, manage the people and quit blaming the unions for everything that doesn’t get accomplished. Sure it’s crazy, but the proposed system is nobly designed to force managers to m-a-n-a-g-e. The roadblocks now will be the ones erected by poor managers.

– Where unions have it right. As noted above, one of the keys to the system’s success is allowing (or forcing) managers to manage. But many of the problems that plague the workforce that the unions are designated to fight are the age-old charges of “good-ol’-boy-politics” and friendship promotions. The unions have whined about this for so long it’s almost like the boy-that-cried-wolf syndrome. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are correct. This system only works if each department actually measures performance and is held accountable for meeting the desired outcomes. While change proponents downplay this as a minor issue, what federal employee has never seen or heard of this happening in their office or in another? The reality is it does happen – each and every day. And there’s not a single department or agency that is immune to such problems.

– Where unions have it wrong. One union press release featured a union spokesperson droning on about how tough these reforms will make it to recruit and retain the nation’s best and brightest. Not so. Personnel reform actually brings the federal government up to speed. The next generation of government employees certainly won’t be turned off by the concept that they will actually be held accountable for their performance. And that raises and awards will be based on actual performance. That should prove to be an excellent recruiting tool.

– Seniority may work in picking vacation days, but performance, not seniority, will be and should be the criteria for advancement and for raises. We all see it. True or not, there is a perception in the general public that once you’ve got a federal job – you’re on easy street. Maybe not financially – but it takes an act of Congress to fire a federal employee, right? So you didn’t exactly achieve the agency mission today? That’s what Monday is for. And besides, you’ve put in 20 of the greatest years of your life to that place, what’s wrong with an occasional 2-hour lunch and a day or so of goofing off every once in awhile? For the most part, you’ve done solid work. You’ll get your normal guaranteed raise and the cycle begins anew. Well…philosophically at least, it looks as if the buck stops here (or there). The days of you getting a raise just because you are you should be over.

– The role, or perhaps a role, of the Merit Systems Protection Board, the independent agency responsible for hearing employee appeals of misconduct or poor performance, appears safe. Taken directly from the transcript from the Defense Department’s hearing on the matter was the Office of Personnel Management’s Ron Sanders, who simply uttered: “The MSPB stays in place.” Sanders did go on to point out that the MSPB will continue to be available for employees to appeal. And that DoD has even commissioned the MSPB’s administrative judges to continue to hear cases in the department. Of course the department will review those cases and can over-ride them, but the employee will retain the right to go to the board, and if he/she doesn’t like the decision can go to the federal circuit court of appeals.

– But what about the Federal Labor Relations Authority? Well, that one’s pretty telling too. Here’s what Sanders said about the FLRA’s not-exactly-enhanced role in the new personnel systems: “The FLRA remains in place to handle union elections and things like that.”

To handle union elections and things like that??? – Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the FLRA. While it may be an over-reaction, the look from here is that the FLRA has seen its last days as a pivotal player in federal labor relations. If the FLRA were stock, we’d advise you to sell!

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47