So Now We Know There’s a Problem–What’s the Solution?

The MSPB recently conducted focus groups around the country about fair and equitable treatment in the federal workplace. Now that we know there is a problem, what is the solution to the problem?

Is favortism a problem in the federal workplace?

Comments on the FedSmith site frequently contain numerous rants from people who did not get a promotion as a result of the “good old boy” system that allegedly operates throughout the federal government. Under this theory, promotions are awarded based on who get together with the boss at a football game or invites the miscreant supervisor over to the house for hamburgers and a beer on the weekend. Related to that are examples of people who were hired based on personal relationships and not on merit.

In fact, articles that at least touch on the topic of favortism often result in pages of comments from readers who are upset at the federal human resources system that is supposed to reward employees based on merit but, by accident or design, allegedly ends up rewarding a person who was not qualified and has an inside track wtih the selecting official. The most recent example of this passionate response can be seen from the comments to an article written by a federal personnel official regarding the complex, often nonsensical approach to writing job vacancy announcements. In a short time, readers sent in about eight pages of comments, usually describing how the task of writing vacancy announcements has gone from bad to worse and has resulted in a process that intimidates potential candidates from within and outside the agency.

Some readers will recall pictures of Vice-President Al Gore throwing away the Federal Personnel Manual when the Clinton administration reinvented government. These readers may have a twinge of regret at this action and may have an overt longing to revive the old manual. Taken to the trash along with the FPM was the often-derided green and white federal job application form printed in multiple pages that was supposed to be too complex to exist in the newly reinvented federal government. It’s not illegal to use the form but why bother when each agency can use its own system?

From the passion surrounding the comments, and the sheer number of the comments from readers, there is a government-wide problem. We know from various press releases and public appearances that the Office of Personnel Management is concerned about the federal process being up to the job of creating a government that will still function as the tens of thousands of baby boomers file their retirement applications and head for the beach, mountains, or the expensive coffee shops in Georgetown to read the morning paper and wait for their monthly annuity check to arrive at the first of the month.

Many of these baby boomers were hired when “merit” in government meant passing an entrance exam to find out who the “best and brightest” were based on test results. The system apparently worked in bringing huge numbers of the young college graduates into government service. Those hired in the decades of the 60’s and 70’s and are now going to create the “retirement tsunami” took the exam, had an interview or two or three and ended up starting on the government’s career path. An extraordinary percentage stayed in government service for an entire career. In the interim, the entrance exam, the FPM and the standard federal job application form have all been thrown out–allegedly for a new, improved, non-discriminatory, modern personnel system. The big problem, apparently, is that the system doesn’t work anymore.

The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) is now weighing in with its view of the problem or at least part of the problem. Steve Nelson, the Director for Policy and Evaluation at the MSPB says in the recent MSPB newsletter: “We heard from many employees who think favortism is a serious problem.”

And, with tongue firmly placed in my cheek, we are obviously pleased to see that a federal study using nationwide focus groups run by competent professionals led to the same overall conclusion that our quick, free, no-holds-barred comments section displays every few weeks from federal employees around the world in the couple of days that the articles are posted on the internet.

Nelson says that identifying favortism is not easy because what one person perceives to be favortism is fair and balanced in the view of someone else. His analysis leads to the conclusion that some managers may not be aware they are providing advantages to some employees and not to others. He also concludes that agency leaders need to ask why many federal employees believe they are not treated fairly. And, the final conclusion: “Agencies should start to identify signs of potential favortism so that they can be addressed.”

No doubt, many readers are going to comment that the government is a few years behind recognizing that a serious problem exists. But, at least, the MSPB is applying some of its resources to identifying the problem.

The crux of the problem is actually fairly easy to identify but hard to implement because of the interest groups that are involved, the inherent difficulty of getting new laws passed in Congress, the lawyers who will quickly side with the fee-payers as they head to court to represent the interest groups while protecting democracy (after collecting their fee or their salary from the union employing them) and the sheer size of the federal bureaucracy.

There are fewer personnel offices now than there were a decade ago. The result is that there are fewer people working to keep the system fair and honest. And, from a personal observation, some of the newer personnel hires are not being trained as well and may not be among the best and brightest individuals that could be hired for a job that is complex and has ramifications for the overall efficiency and productivity of the federal workforce.

There are more contractors performing the job of the federal human resources offices. The motivation of a federal contractor is to keep the customer happy. That usually translates into meeting a definable metric such as processing actions quickly and efficiently, keeping the paperwork to a minimum, and not charging the agency too much money in the process. A personnel office staffed with federal employees who are smart, well-trained, and rewarded for ensuring that the personnel process is handled fairly and smoothly are likely to do a good job of recognizing merit while filling positions at a local facility. These employees know the people and care about the organization. Compare that to a system of using a large, consolidated personnel office hundreds of miles away and staffed with a combination of contractors and federal overseers.

The Office of Personnel Management used to maintain registers of potential new federal employees. It had offices around the country to explain to the public how to apply for a federal job. It conducted tests to determine who was qualified to work for Uncle Sam and who needed to go elsewhere because the government could not function with a workforce that is not qualified. As an overseer of the process, OPM could have been more efficient and taken better advantage of newer methods to speed up the process. But it provided a function that was valuable in ensuring there was more merit than political spoils or a system that allowed hiring relatives or former colleagues.

When we reinvented government, we threw away a system that worked reasonably well. It could have worked better. Uncle Sam needed to make better use of resources and move away from paper based systems that would have made the 1920’s federal employee feel right at home in the modern federal human resources office. There need to be incentives to reward creativity and innovation in a bureaucracy that is often stodgy, resistant to change and sometimes exists primarily to benefit those working there rather than the taxpayers.

But getting rid of the system that protected “merit” and replacing with a free for all that differs from agency to agency, that has relatively little central coordination and no objective testing method for hiring new federal employees is not working.

And the problem is not that some employees are not happy or feel mistreated. What I find discouraging about the thousands of comments describing the problem that we read on our site every year is that the federal government may be losing its abilty to govern effectively. If most employees say there is little integrity and honesty among agency leaders, that the system rewards incompetence or friendships rather than merit, and that the system is incapable of hiring qualified people quickly, America has bigger problems than an uphappy workforce. A government that is not fair and competent is what we expect from third world countries.

Steve Nelson’s comments in the latest MSPB newsletter are on point. People who work for and around government on a regular basis are generally aware of the nature of the problem. Let’s hope that he will use his influence within MSPB to influence OPM, OMB and Congress to move forward to take substantive steps to create a government that works well and is willing to work to hire the “best and brightest” rather than just accepting those willing to take the time to figure out a process that is too complex, too unwieldly and not relevant to accomplishing its main goal.

One final note: Several readers have written to me telling me to update my terminology. “Personnel” is passe. “Human resources” is out of vogue. “Human capital” is the modern, correct term to use. I am aware of the new terminology. I just do not like “human capital” because it sounds dehumanizing and too bureaucratic. I am tempted to write “human cattle” whenever the urge to use it momentarily appears in an article I am writing. For those who are offended by the use of the term “personnel” or “human resources”, I hope you will find room for forgiveness.

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