Tapping a Valuable Resource: The Federal Workforce

How do you think your agency could improve performance and make government a better place to work? Here is your choice to submit your opinion.

Government may be at a crossroad.

The sequestration and pay freezes have had an impact on the workforce that can only be negative. That shows up in the annual FEVS survey responses. Morale is known to be low and declining.

A number of articles have discussed the retirements and loss of experienced people. Several prominent Republicans now in leadership positions have voiced an interest in addressing workforce issues. The President’s recently released budget proposal floated a number of ideas to “strengthen the federal workforce.”

Perhaps a central point is that no one has argued for closing the pay gap (aside from the unions) – or even suggested a pay increase that matches recent increases in the private sector. If anything, there is a possibility that the benefits provided to federal workers will be reduced (or required contributions increased).

But somehow despite all the coverage by the media, there has been little discussion of how everything that has happened has actually affected the day-to-day work experience of federal employees. Nor have federal employees had an opportunity to make their experience public.

The Great Recession of course hurt almost every business. In 2009 and 2010 industry, along with state and local government, laid employees off and froze wages and salaries, eliminated bonuses, and both reduced benefits and increased required contributions.

At least in the private sector the worst is over; new jobs have been added, and the most recent BLS reports show increasing pay levels. (The annualized average increase in weekly earnings rose 5.6 %.) The stock market has had ups and downs but is close to all-time highs. The economy is clearly not back to the level of the late 1990s but it’s steadily improving.

The private sector has also experienced a revolution in the way work is organized and managed. The old, top down, over-the-shoulder, close supervision is largely gone. The jobs requiring ‘strong backs’ have been replaced by knowledge jobs where employees and their capabilities are valued assets. Empowerment is a buzzword but it describes a work environment where workers have more autonomy but a lot is also expected. There are skill gaps emerging that will undoubtedly drive up salaries for high demand jobs.

A theme that appears regularly in the business press is the importance of employee engagement and creating a ‘best place to work’ – that is to say, there is a recognition that a positive work environment will contribute to higher performance.

The same theme has appeared on websites for the federal community, but it’s largely offset by the reality that some members of Congress have an ongoing interest in reducing the payroll. The White House announced in November that the SES would be accountable for increasing employee engagement but to date little has been disclosed on how that will unfold.

Actually, if federal agencies fail to move assertively over the next year or two, agencies are likely to experience recruiting and retention problems for critical skills. If pay is not competitive, then it will be even more important to find ways to enhance the work environment.

However, agencies are often reluctant to acknowledge problems. A goal here is to highlight those problems and possible solutions.

With that as background, the purpose here is to solicit feedback on what’s going on and what could be done to improve the federal work experience.

The survey is now closed, and the best ideas will be reported in one or more future columns on FedSmith.com. Selected responses may also be quoted in a planned book with the working title, Rethinking Civil Service: Strategies to Create More Rewarding and Productive Work Environments in Government.

About the Author

Howard Risher is a private consultant who focuses on pay and performance. His career extends over 40 years and includes years managing consulting practices for two national firms. He recently became the editor of the journal Compensation and Benefits Review. He has written four books, including Aligning Pay and Results. He has an MBA and Ph.D from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.