Tips for federal managers dealing with the sequester

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It’s not an easy time for federal employees and their managers as they brace for the fallout from sequestration — the $85 billion in automatic across-the-board spending cuts required under the 2011 Budget Control Act.

With Congress and the White House working to find an alternative plan to avoid the severe cutbacks, employees face the prospect of furloughs, lost pay and added stress.

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An informal poll of the Partnership for Public Service’s “Emerging HR Leaders,” a coalition of young government human-resources professionals, found a mix of views. Half think that federal employees will be furloughed and lose pay. About a third assert that the sequestration will hurt the ability of their agencies to accomplish their missions.

In discussions with leaders throughout the government, it is clear that even the threat of sequestration has caused major challenges in the workplace. For federal managers, it has meant endless hours deciding how to handle various budgetary scenarios and resulted in the inability to do long-range planning, make new purchases or hire employees. It also has created much unease among federal workers.

As this latest round of brinkmanship plays out between Congress and the White House, federal leaders and employees face other uncertainties as well, including the expiration of temporary budget funds on March 27, the debt limit ceiling suspension that will expire on May 19 and the looming debate over the 2014 budget.

All the while, federal managers need to keep employees focused and motivated. There are no sure-fire solutions for handling the current state of affairs, but there are some steps you can take to maintain morale in these tumultuous times:

Level with employees.

Federal employees are concerned about the possible impact of sequestration both professionally and personally. Treat them like adults and tell them what you know and what you don’t know. For example, some agencies already know if they are exempt from sequestration or if their funding cuts can be managed without resorting to unpaid furloughs. Other agencies are not so fortunate. Share what you know so employees can plan accordingly. Answer questions honestly, and if you don’t have the information then say that you’ll try to get it — and then follow through. Also, make sure your workers are aware there are a number of variables that could change things and that it may be impossible to give them a definitive answer.

Seek employee input.

Even if employees are not expressing concerns or frustrations, don’t assume they don’t have any. In staff meetings or in one-on-one conversations, bring up the topic yourself and invite employees to ask questions. And if furloughs are inevitable at your agency and if you have some flexibility in how they are carried out, ask employees for ways to best to implement them. For example, it may be possible to ask if anyone would like to volunteer to be furloughed for a greater number of days than planned in order to lessen the impact on others.

Consult with the unions.

If your employees are represented by a union, make sure to provide the union representatives with an opportunity to weigh in on the impact and implementation of the furloughs to the full extent allowed under the law.

Keep your eye on the bottom line.

Agency leaders must work closely with the budget staff and chief financial officers to monitor the evolving situation. Remember, the goal is to reduce spending. There are a variety of ways to do that. Unexpected savings, such as higher than anticipated staff turnover or the cancelation of a major planned expenditure, may reduce or even eliminate the need for some other cuts or reductions.

Keep focused on mission.

Make it clear through word and deed that you and the organization are going to focus on the mission, and that a primary goal of any cost-reduction efforts will be to help your agency to get its job done as effectively as possible for the American public. And don’t forget, focusing on the mission and minimizing the impact of sequestration on employees need not be mutually exclusive.

How is your agency handling the current fiscal crisis? Please tell us about your experiences by commenting below.

Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.You can send him an email at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

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