Survey Says: New Personnel Systems A Return Of Good Ol’ Boy System

Survey results: Feds fear return to good ol’ boy system with new pay for performance plans.

While the administration hopes to pass sweeping personnel management reforms across the federal landscape, employee reaction to the proposed changes starting in the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security has been underwhelming, to say the least.

Consider a few comments from a recent survey regarding the recently proposed personnel management systems at DHS and DoD.

“A return to the days of cronyism.”

“The good ol’ boy network is alive and well in the federal government.”

“Favoritism is the word of the day.”

“Back to the spoils system.”

And these were some of the more tame comments from readers. Even beyond this survey, fear and distrust permeates much of the federal workforce over changes that would enable managers to reward the highest performers and punish the poor performers. In fact, comments from stakeholders during the public comment period of the National Security Personnel System regulations have been largely negative toward the changes, iterating fears that pay for performance will simply be a method whereby managers and supervisors can reward their friends and favorites without restriction and without union involvement.

When asked what the best part of the proposed systems was, 58% of respondents to the survey indicated that nothing about the changes was good. Another 21% indicated that pay for performance was the best thing about the new system, while 11% indicated the best thing was that unions were losing power. Another 4% indicated that the best news regarding the new systems was the fact that managers were gaining power. An equal number (4%) of respondents said that the best thing about the system was moving away from the General Schedule pay system, while only 3% indicated that everything about the new systems was good.

When asked what the worst part of the reforms was, 30% said everything about the proposal was bad. Another 20% said the worst thing was that managers were gaining power, while 19% said moving away from the General Schedule pay system was the worst item. Another 12% said pay for performance was the worst part, followed by 11% who indicated that the possible loss of power for federal unions was the worst part.

Not all survey-takers were against the reforms as another 9% indicated that nothing about the reforms was bad.

When asked whether they believed the proposed changes would eventually be implemented government-wide, 66% said yes while the remainder said no.

The question of whether they thought unions would be successful in their lawsuits against DoD and DHS over the proposed reforms may not be a good omen for the union as 70% said no, compared to 30% who said yes. However, the good news for the unions was that 78% of the respondents said they feel like the unions should nonetheless proceed with the lawsuits. “Sending a message,” so to speak, even if you can’t win is sometimes considered just as important.

The most overwhelming response occurred when readers were asked whether they would like the reforms, if passed, to be implemented quickly or all at once – 85% said they should be phased in incrementally while 15% said to implement the reforms quickly “to be done with it.”

Last, readers were asked whether they thought that massive personnel management reform was even necessary. 42% said that reform was necessary, but not these particular reforms, while 37% indicated that reforms were not even necessary. 19% said they thought that massive personnel management reforms were necessary, while 2% basically said “I’m retiring, so I don’t care what they do!”

Predictably, many respondents expressed their resentment and frustration with the proposals. Here are just a few representative comments from readers:

A computer programmer with USDA in Idaho wrote:

“Although it is more difficult to fire a government employee because of the regulations a supervisor must work with, it is not impossible. Throwing out the entire personal system seems excessive, and has not in the past solved the problems, only created more. Eliminating union representation simply gives the supervisor and upper management the ability to do as they wish without any oversight.”

A baggage screener with the Transportation Security Administration in Dallas argued what was a very common theme among federal workers – fear of favoritism.

“The new system promotes favoritism and discrimination by management and gives workers no ‘real’ avenue for grievances.”

A support services specialist with the Department of Energy in New Orleans stated:

“Personnel Performance Management is a systemic problem throughout the federal government, but this approach of Pay for Performance outlined by the Bush Administration is not the answer and will only result in good, productive employees leaving because they are the not always the ones rewarded and recognized on a grand scale anyway.”

Wrote an EEO specialist with the Department of Agriculture in Washington D.C.:

“There are no mandatory training requirements for new supervisors. Many seasoned federal employees are subjected to poor leadership, lack of management skills necessary to be fair and impartial. This will benefit many and hurt a lot of people who are subject to discrimination or biases that we can control. SCARY.”

One reader sent in the following question:

“The system should allow employees to rate their managers. I wonder how many managers would agree to it?”

A computer specialist with DoD in Utah wrote:

“Managers’ favorites will be selected for special incentives. The quiet hard-working employee will be passed over for all incentives and won’t even get step increases.”

Not everyone was against the changes. A Navy supervisor in California backed the changes and said they could be highly successful:

“We have been under a “demo” project doing this for almost 25 years. Highly successful in my opinion. Wider flexibility in awarding high performers and not awarding raises for simply showing up and breathing for years.”

An HR liaison with the Department of Veterans Affairs was hoping the reforms meant the beginning of the end for federal unions.

“This is a godsend for those of us who have been toiling through the minefield of the CSRA. I hope this spells the beginning of the decline of Federal unions, a bad idea that has stunted the Federal government’s ability to manage and lead in an effective and efficient manner.”

A human resources specialist from the Social Security Administration wrote:

“The success of any reform will rely primarily on two factors: (1) the establishment of valid performance-management criteria that are accepted (even grudgingly) by the parties, and (2) a massive culture change whereby managers are re-trained to manage people rather than programs–and rewarded accordingly.”

A management analyst with Navy in Washington stated:

“I agree we need changes – too much dead-weight and no incentive for performance. Best performers are consistently ‘rewarded’ by getting the work of slackers. However, the new system can only be effective if managers are impartial and objective in their review of personnel.”

A Customs Inspector from El Paso perhaps summed up the prevailing sentiments best when he wrote:

“These changes give power to the managers and will take us back to the good ole boy system.”

Thanks to all of our readers who took the time to send in their opinions and comments on this topic.

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