Report: weakened workforce could ‘overwhelm government’s capacity’

Joe Davidson
Columnist May 20

A new report on the state of the federal workforce can cause angst even in the sanguine.

The title, “Embracing Change,” does not begin to convey the severity of the change that federal chief human capital officers (CHCOs) said is needed in a series of interviews with the Partnership for Public Service, a good-government group that focuses on federal workplace issues, and the Grant Thornton consulting firm.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Those interviews, with 62 CHCOs and other personnel leaders at 43 agencies, present a picture of a government that risks malfunction if serious repairs are not made soon. The report will be released at a forum Wednesday.

Consider these findings:

●“[I]f government policies and policymakers continue to undermine the federal workforce, the weakening of that workforce could overwhelm government’s capacity to carry out its responsibilities.”

●Federal leaders “need to help undo the deep institutional neglect within major segments of the federal workforce.”

●Tight budgets and growing workloads “have damaged the federal workforce’s ability to meet demands effectively and efficiently.”

●“Significant challenges must be overcome to rebuild a federal workforce that has been battered on a number of fronts over the past few years.”

In response, Frank Benenati, an Office of Management and Budget spokesman, said the administration is committed to “fostering a culture of excellence among those who serve . . . the Administration will continue to work aggressively to ensure the Federal workforce is engaged, well-prepared, and well-trained with the right set of skills to accomplish agency missions and serve the American people.”

The report is one of five issued since 2007, based on interviews with top federal human resource managers. This one draws on November-to-February discussions that followed a particularly bleak period for feds, including a three-year freeze on basic pay rates, pay cuts for some through furloughs, and a 16-day partial government shutdown.

Those things contributed to sinking employee engagement and left many feds “feeling demoralized and undervalued,” according to the report. What’s more, lower-level managers are not always committed to improving morale, according to the HR leaders.

Continued difficulties with the federal hiring process also got a lot of ink in the report.

In 2010, President Obama ordered changes to the hiring process and created a “Pathways Program” designed to facilitate the federal employment of young adults. But neither the hiring reforms nor the Pathways Program are working as well as intended, the HR leaders said. They support giving preference to job applicants who are veterans, but said the way that preference now is implemented can make other objectives, including employment diversity, more difficult to achieve.

Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta said the Obama administration is working to “recruit and hire the best possible talent and leaders from all backgrounds for the federal jobs of the 21st century. This includes working with agencies to untie knots in the hiring process and identifying innovative and more data driven recruitment strategies to attract new generations to federal service.”

Changing the veteran’s preference is one of the report’s recommendations that could prove controversial. And federal labor leaders have previously criticized proposals to revamp the civil service system, reforms the HR executives strongly endorsed.

National Federation of Federal Employees President William Dougan said it is important for unions to be fully involved in any changes for them to be successful.

“Strong partnerships with labor organizations and agency management lead to the most effective change recommendations,” he said.

Grassley warns VA against “paid vacations”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has warned the Department of Veterans Affairs against “expensive paid vacations” for employees who were placed on paid leave following accusations of falsifying patient waiting lists.

In a letter sent to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Grassley said federal precedents generally “limit the authority for paid administrative leave . . . only for short periods of time.”

“It is troubling that several VA employees are being placed on administrative leave pending potentially lengthy investigations,” he added. “If those employees are receiving their full salary while on leave, it could result in significant waste of taxpayer money in annual salaries for highly paid employees who are not working. It would only add insult to injury if the investigations find that these expensive paid vacations are being given to the very employees responsible for the misconduct at the VA.”

The letter did not offer an alternative, but a spokeswoman for Grassley said reassignment to other duties could be considered in cases such as these.

Cheri Cannon, a partner at the law firm Tully Rinckey, said though Grassley may view administrative leave as a paid vacation, “a federal employee cannot be separated from their position until an investigation has been completed and due process has been served, including a right to respond to any substantiated allegation.”

The notion that a long paid administrative leave is a vacation has been vigorously rejected by those who have experienced it. For example, Paul Brachfeld, the National Archives inspector general, has been on paid administrative leave since Sept. 14, 2012, pending an investigation into allegations of professional misconduct.

Brachfeld emphatically denies the allegations and finds the leave demoralizing.

“I don’t think anybody would like to live the life I’ve lived,” he said.

The VA did not have an immediate response to Grassley’s letter.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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