Agency Policies Gone Awry – What Should You Do?

The author contends that with the Internet, social media and data analytics, employees and other stakeholders can play a greater role in assessing and improving agency performance.

It’s been interesting following the discussions generated from the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS’s) Inspector General Report, which identified that inappropriate criteria were applied to conservative organizations submitting applications for tax exempt status. (The IRS Inspector General initiated the review at the request of Congress.) These types of revelations generate significant media attention as well as reflect negatively on federal employees and the civil service system.

So far, the story not told is what role, if any, IRS employees involved in processing the cases may have taken to report the abuse. I can only speculate that, since conservative groups (as opposed to progressive or liberal groups) received the brunt of the scrutiny, a few employees may have (I hope) questioned the policy and process and the effect on the delays in meeting processing goals.

In his article “Bad Press Aggravates Agencies and Penalty Decisions,” Mathew B. Tully shares his insight on legal and administrative actions (including being fired) that could be taken against individual employees who took action that reflected negatively on the agency. This will be an interesting issue to watch—there’s the potential for employees to be fired for actions that were likely recognized as acceptable in performance appraisals and in some cases, led to bonuses.

What Would You Have Done?

Suppose that, as a federal employee, you are working in a system that is producing results that you think would be questioned if they became more public. What would you do to address your concerns? Would the fear of retaliation in voicing your concerns be greater than the moral cost and adverse impact on your agency and the civil service of doing nothing?

A Human Challenge – Doing The Right Things

An enduring human challenge is recognizing and then confronting the corruptive influence of power. Often times, individuals and groups can become “normalized” to a situation that can deteriorate to a point where they don’t even recognize there are problems until those problems are discovered and pointed out by outsiders (e.g., the IRS example).

Normalization can also be referred to as cognitive dissonance, a condition where individuals adapt a belief to conform to a reality instead of taking action to change the reality to conform to their belief as to the right thing. Excellent quality results from doing the “right thing” in the right ways.

Individuals who may be aware of the corruption can be influenced to believe that the system is too big and too corrupt and there is nothing one person can do to change it. Encouraging this attitude in the workforce or a given population can be a deliberate or inherited strategy by individuals and groups to reinforce their relative power.

On a side note, this normalization effect also occurs on a national and international level and is inherent in national defense strategies. North Korea’s political leadership has been consistent in shaping an environment that has convinced the population (who are among the most repressed in the world) that accepting the status quo is preferable to death or imprisonment. Further, the North Korean leadership has also convinced China, the United States, South Korea, Russia and Japan that accepting the status quo is preferable to conflict. In their article “How North Korea Could Cripple the U.S.,” R. James Woolsey and Peter Vincent Pry identify a worst-case scenario on the cost of sustaining the status quo.  

It is always inspiring to read about refugees from North Korea who make it out of the country and overcome mental challenges (e.g., post-traumatic stress) and physical health challenges (e.g., malnutrition) to lead more productive lives.

A common technique for abusing power is development and communication of an organizational strategy that substitutes vision with a slogan. Without an effective organizational vision, the “right thing” is uniquely defined by everyone, which benefits the few and demoralizes the many.

An organizational assessment using the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence is a proven approach that identifies the misuse of individual and collective power. The criteria reinforce the importance of vision, leadership, process, ethics and results. Adopting the criteria as an integrated management system and assessing progress on a regular basis provides the transparency needed to optimize the power that is required to continually meet the needs and expectations of all customers and stakeholders.

Adopting a systemic approach to continually improve performance should not be optional. Short of divine intervention, it is the only way to accomplish the mission in an efficient and effective manner and to meet the intent of the Federal Managers’ Financial Integrity Act (FMFIA).

On the issue of power, the U.S. Founding Fathers certainly understood the individual and group tendency to be corrupted by power. They designed a system of checks and balances to help mitigate this tendency, which requires citizens to exercise their respective responsibilities.

The “missing piece” in the design of the U.S. political system is the knowledge of the methods that can be used for reducing variation—that is, reducing the gap between the ideal (a more perfect Union) and reality. The methods provide a better way to solve problems and make decisions. Individuals who apply the methods can help ensure that a greater percentage of changes result in improvements in their organizations, communities and country.

The Civil Service System – An Imbalance of Power?

The IRS example, where employees were directed to apply wrong if not illegal policies and practices, may be unusual in the sense that it became national news. But is this event illustrative of a more pervasive culture sustained by the civil service system, where employees are “normalized” to accept management actions that produce the wrong results? Are the checks and balances on power within the civil service system adequate?

One check on the system is the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM’s) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). The FEVS provides employees with a subtle and anonymous way of “blowing the whistle.

In his column “Are You Being Rewarded by Your Agency for Your Hard Work?” Ian Smith provides a summary from a recent report prepared by the Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte on declining survey scores respective to employees’ satisfaction with performance-based rewards and advancement opportunities within their agencies. This report was developed from information derived from the FEVS. Employees’ perceptions on equity and fairness have a direct impact on performance and productivity.

The 2012 FEVS identified that employees’ satisfaction with their jobs, pay and organizations are areas of continued risk (emphasis mine). The FEVS results showed that: 

  • Only 2 out of 10 employees feel pay raises are related to their job performance.
  • Only 3 out of 10 employees feel that their performance is recognized in a meaningful way and that promotions are based on merit.

Survey responses are based on perceptions, and perceptions are derived from management actions. These actions include developing and sustaining systems (written and unwritten policies) that produce results that employees believe circumvent statutory and regulatory guidance related to pay, performance and merit system promotions.

The FEVS results provide insight on what is being “normalized” in the civil service system. In addition to the FEVS results, there are other sources that provide feedback on system performance.  Those sources include:

  • The Partnership for Public Service’s agency rankings and comparisons
  • Agency Inspector General reports
  • Annual statements of assurance
  • Audits and/or reviews conducted by internal review staff or by external auditors

Within the military, command inspections, command climate surveys as well as audits and reviews are used to assess the effectiveness, productivity and morale within organizations. Poor results and scores lead to further reviews that can include scrutiny from Congress and immediate reassignment of leadership when the situation warrants. The relief of senior commanders (senior executive service equivalents) in all the services is often made public. Justification for the relief can include losing the confidence of superiors and subordinates. A similar approach taken within the civilian senior executive service would send a clear message on expected performance. Not doing anything also sends a clear message.

Another check on the system is the compliance to Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) statutes. A review of the most recently published annual report by the EEO Commission, EEOC FY 2011 Annual Report on the Federal Work Force Part I, identifies that things may be  getting worse and not better (page I-11):

“FY 2011 also saw a continuance of a five-year upward trend (emphasis mine) 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)”.

Retaliation, either real or perceived, sends a message to the workforce that there are consequences to challenging management actions and decisions.

If you review the EEOC FY 2012 Performance and Accountability Report, it becomes evident that there’s a gap between the FY 2011 results and historical trends and the EEOC vision, mission and performance measures.  The vision identifies what the EEOC needs to do to be effective (doing the right things), and the mission identifies what it needs to do to be efficient (doing things right):

  • Vision – Justice and equality in the workplace
  • Mission – Stop and remedy unlawful employment discrimination

Feedback (performance) measures need to provide indications of progress in achieving the vision and mission. Unfortunately, a common practice that results in avoiding accountability and minimizing risk is to measure the “results” based on activities (e.g., how many plans or partnerships were developed, how often guidance was provided) rather than on the outcomes from those activities.

The EEOC Inspector General identifies strategic management as a significant challenge for managers. This challenge is not unique to the EEOC—it’s a challenge faced by managers throughout the civil service system.

In addition to the information available from the EEOC, the Office of Personnel Management provides a database of agency employment and demographic data that is available at . The database provides a source of information that can be used to help analyze agency compliance to EEO and merit system principles. The data can also be used to help identify adverse impacts from agency policies that may be contributing to FEVS results.

The internet and social media, along with software that supports data analytics, provide the tools individuals are using to bring about continuous improvement within nations, organizations and communities. In essence, these technologies represent an early phase of a new “normalization,” where leaders can be held accountable for managing risk, ensuring that the results from policies and systems are producing the right things, and ensuring that the number of wrong things is being continually reduced.

A Way Ahead

I would be interested to hear readers’ viewpoints, responses and experiences on the adequacy of agency policies and management systems in providing employees with the conditions needed to do the right things.

Why do you think the majority of employees surveyed believe that pay, performance and promotions are not fair? Can your perceptions be supported with facts? I would also be interested in your ideas for improvement, including any lessons learned.

In a follow-up article, I will summarize reader responses, which I hope will start a dialog on what individuals can and/or should do to improve the quality of government service.

About the Author

Timothy J. Clark retired from the federal government with 35 years of service. He is a former enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army. He 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 a strategic analyst with the American Center for Quality Leadership and is active in economic and community development in a small rural county in Indiana.