Agency Policies Gone Awry – Part 2

In this follow-on article, the author addresses comments from readers and identifies actions that federal employees can take and have taken to change policy and bring about needed improvements.

Agency Policies Gone Awry – What Should You Do? The online comments fell into three categories: the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS’s) culture, retaliation against whistle blowers and the fact that the culture within the federal bureaucracy would not be easy to change.

The IRS’s Culture

Some online comments addressed the IRS’s culture and whether it’s perceived as acceptable. For example, here’s an excerpt from one reader’s comments:

The author implies there is a “culture” of acceptance of wrong doing pervasive at IRS and other federal agencies. As a 32 year IRS career employee I can personally attest that I have witnessed nothing but the highest of integrity in IRS employees and managers. This is the culture I have witnessed and worked in for my entire career.

This response prompted another reader to write:

 Isn’t it hard to accept that the IRS has already apologized for doing exactly what you fail to see?

A third reader commented:

 The excuse that Feds have been giving whether it’s the IRS, HLS Justice, HUD etc is the same excuses made in Nuremburg. It wasn’t right then nor is it right today.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the Nuremburg Trials, a common excuse given by the defendants charged with war crimes during WWII was “I was only following orders.” Another common excuse for not taking action given by the people who lived near the death camps was ignorance (e.g., “I did not know it was happening”).

Retaliation Against Whistleblowers

Readers’ comments also addressed how retaliation against whistle blowers can be an inherent part of the culture and can result in career suicide:

 One only need look as far as the other whistle-blowers in your organization. How were they treated afterwards? If the answer is “like sh*t” then the answer to whether or not others are going to say anything when they see wrongdoing is: “not only no, but h*ll no!”

Management is not held accountable. They don’t get reprimanded, don’t lose rank, etc. They get awarded and move upward and onward in their careers. Employees become apathetic because of it.

 …if employees do report observed wrongdoing they are likely face retaliation in the form of trumped up disciplinary charges, and loss of opportunities for career growth. 

I can speak to the specific since I have personally been the recipient of retribution from a supervisor after I attempted to do what many of my co-workers have stated was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, in this case the right thing brought to light some wrong things that my supervisor had done. With few outside opportunities to move on from my present position in the organization, which equates to the resident piriah, my 20 year career has effectively been ruined. I can only wait out my time quietly until retirement is a viable option.

Not Easy to Change

Some readers brought up the fact that the culture within the federal bureaucracy would not be easy to change. The following comment summarizes the challenge in changing the status quo:

I agree with the comments thus far, your article is well researched and presented. So much so, that I believe you would get agreement from all ranks of military and civilian personnel. It is very likely that you would also get wholesale agreement that change would not come in any specific organization with the knowledge and guidance your article presents. There are far too many contributing factors as to why little will change to address in a single comment. Suffice to say that many in power have gotten there by using less than admirable actions and hold onto that power with equally despicable actions.

I wholeheartedly agree that changing the system is a daunting challenge and that are several contributing factors that need to be considered in a transformation strategy. Dr. W. Edwards Deming, whose work I’ve discussed in most if not all of my articles, reinforced that the majority of results (94% to 98%) are due to the system, that management owns the system, and that the American system of management needs to be transformed.

The “system” is the most significant contributing factor. In the case of the federal system, as federal employees, we work in the system, but as citizens, we own the system. My perspective on and experience with Deming’s insights on transformation are introduced in two articles that I wrote for the Process Excellence Network (PEX).

Changing the Culture Through the Application of an Integrated Management System

Improving the system is synonymous with improving the culture. Change must be led, and the leaders must have a method. The framework provided by the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence provides a method. It is an integrated management system that would serve as the common language for performance management within the federal bureaucracy.

Application of the framework requires effective leaders who can successfully involve employees in continually improving performance. Application of the framework provides feedback on the capability of the organization in achieving results that meet the requirements and expectations of all stakeholders. Customers and stakeholders determine if and when the organization’s results are acceptable.

Progress in understanding and applying the criteria is assessed on a scale of 0 to 1,000 points. Assessments from traditionally managed organizations would score in the 200-point range. Organizations that are successful in applying the criteria and transforming their culture would likely be assessed in the 700-point range. I introduced this approach in my article “Part 2 – What Kind of Change to the Civil Service System is Really Needed?

There is a significant cultural difference between an organization where the 200-point range is considered “acceptable” and a 700-point range organization where continuous performance improvement is considered the norm. As owners of the system, federal employees share in the responsibility to support needed change that result in better quality at an optimum level of resources.

The following excerpts from the book Insights to Performance Excellence 2013-2014: Understanding the Integrated Management System and the Baldrige Criteria summarize the comprehensiveness of the approach in engaging the workforce to achieve results that matter to stakeholders. Note that the “Results” category accounts for the highest number of points, followed by the “Leadership” category.

Organizational Profile. The Organizational Profile is a snapshot of your organization, the key influences on how it operates and the key challenges it faces. (p. 77)

1.0 Leadership – 120 Points. The Leadership Category asks how your organization’s senior leaders’ personal actions guide and sustain your organization. It also asks about your organization’s governance system; how your organization fulfills its legal, ethical, and societal responsibilities; and how it supports its key communities. (p. 83)

2.0 Strategic Planning – 85 Points. The Strategic Planning Category asks how your organization develops strategic objectives and action plans, implements them, changes them if circumstances require, and measures progress. (p. 105)

3.0 Customer Focus85 Points. The Customer Focus category asks how your organization engages its customers for long-term marketplace success, including how your organization listens to the voice of the customers, builds customer relationships, and uses customer information to improve and to identify opportunities for innovation. (p. 129)

4.0 Measurement, Analysis, and Knowledge Management – 90 Points. The Measurement, Analysis, and Knowledge Management Category asks how your organization selects, gathers, analyzes, manages, and improves its data, information, and knowledge assets; how it learns; and how it manages information technology. The Category also asks how your organization uses review findings to improve its performance. (p. 153)

5.0 Workforce Focus – 85 Points. The Workforce Focus Category asks how your organization assesses workforce capability and capacity needs and builds a workforce environment conducive to high performance. The Category also examines how your organization engages, manages, and develops your workforce to utilize its full potential in alignment with your organization’s overall mission, strategy, and action plans. (p. 175)

6.0 Operations Focus – 85 Points. The Operations Focus Category asks how your organization designs, manages, and improves its products and work processes and improves operational effectiveness to deliver customer value and achieve organizational success and sustainability. (p. 203)

7.0 Results – 450 Points. The Results Category asks about your organization’s performance and improvement in all key areas – product and process results, customer-focused results, workforce-focused results, leadership and governance results, and financial and market results. The Category asks about performance levels relative to those of competitors and other organizations with similar product offerings. (p. 225)

GAO and Entity-Level Assessments

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has recognized the need for an entity-level assessment (i.e., an organization-level assessment) to help organizations comply with the Federal Managers’ Financial Integrity Act (FMFIA) of 1982. The tool, referred to as the Internal Control Management and Evaluation Tool, is intended to provide “a systemic, organized and structured approach to assessing the internal control structure.” A comparison of the GAO tool with the Baldrige framework indicates that the Baldrige-based approach is the better option for conducting an entity-level assessment. (See my article “Smaller Government, Better Government?”)

Leading the Effort to Change Flawed Policies

Individuals and groups can have a positive impact on addressing the adverse impacts from flawed Federal policies. For example, consider the following:

In October 2009, President Obama repealed the Department of Defense’s National Security Personnel System (NSPS), which established policies governing “pay for performance”. An analysis of the policy’s impact by Federal Times indicated significant problems, including inequalities with pay raises and bonuses and a discriminatory impact on non-white employees.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) concurred with the analysis. The AFGE chief of staff stated, “These systems can have a discriminatory impact. Whether it’s intended or unintended, it happens nevertheless.”

NSPS was derived from theories that did not distinguish individual performance in context of the system. This is why Deming referred to these types of policies as a “deadly disease”. I addressed this topic in the article “Individual and System Performance – Pass or Fail?

In December 2010, President Obama issued an executive order that ended the Federal Career Intern Program. In the article “Federal hiring ruling goes veterans’ way”, Washington Post columnist Joe Davison reported that the program (policy) was ended as a result of action taken by individuals. Their action led the Merit Systems Protection Board to conclude that the internship program violated veterans’ preference rights.

On the flip side, individuals who make a positive impact might pay dearly for it. For example, in the article “The price Gina Gray paid for whistle blowing”, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank identifies the price individuals can pay for doing what they believe is the right thing. In the case of Gina Gray, her courage led to much needed change at the Arlington National Cemetery, which was plagued with problems such as misplaced graves, mishandled remains and financial mismanagement. After reporting the problems through the proper channels, she was fired. She could not afford the legal costs required to challenge her firing in court, so she’s still unemployed.

A Way Ahead

Whether intended or unintended, policies that contribute to suboptimal performance must be recognized and then changed. As you have seen, individuals and groups can successfully take action to change major federal policies.

In Part 3 of this series, I will introduce the Office of Personnel Management’s Training and Development Policies for Succession Planning in context of the 2012 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), where the majority of employees indicated that pay, performance and promotions are not fair or based on merit. Agencies’ implementation of this policy may be a contributing factors to the FEVS results and Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaints.

Feigning ignorance on the adverse impacts from policies or “just following orders” (e.g., executing flawed policies that continue to have detrimental impacts on the morale and productivity of the federal workforce) should never be an acceptable option.

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.