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A Government Workforce in Need of Its Own Rescue

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, October 2, 2008

A throng of good-government types packed a National Press Club meeting room yesterday, determined to help smooth the transition from President Bush's administration to whatever comes next.

Undeterred by the abysmal failure of leadership the White House and Congress have displayed in recent days, these folks are convinced that government can work better, if only the leaders paid more attention to the way it actually operates.

These are government junkies. They zero in on the way it works -- or doesn't -- just as D.C. football fanatics critique the 'Skins.

"For folks like us, government management and reform gets our blood going," Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, told the standing-room-only crowd.

Before you say "get a life," consider the embarrassing spectacle our elected leaders have made of themselves during the nation's most serious financial crisis in decades and be glad that some folks are working hard to improve how government functions.

Stier is a big fan of government workers, if not always government work.

But to those who say government is the problem, he displayed a cartoon by Tom Toles of The Washington Post depicting Uncle Sam saving a critic from the burning building that is now Wall Street. "There's nothing like a crisis to help people realize that having an effective federal government matters -- a lot," he said.

To help Uncle Sam, the Partnership, supported by seven other organizations, released a "Roadmap to Reform/A Management Framework for the Next Administration." It concentrates on the most crucial element in government -- its employees, and not the elected ones.

The road map begins with the government hiring system that has long been a wreck. "In too many cases, the process takes too long, is too complicated, lacks transparency and fails to produce the right talent for the job," it says, with phrasing that barely reflects the frustration some job applicants have experienced.

The recommendation: expanded and more imaginative outreach to potential workers, not just young college grads, but also mid-career candidates and aging boomers. Private-sector boomers might not know much about government, but they do have management experience that can be useful as Washington faces a wave of retirements.

But, unfortunately, living longer also means "they also hold more negative views toward government, requiring a recruiting pitch aimed at their specific concerns," the report cautions. The report didn't advocate this, but if you tell some of these older workers they can get retiree health insurance benefits, which are pretty good, after five years of federal service, they might view working for Uncle Sam more favorably.

To attract the younger set, the road map suggests greater student loan repayment assistance by treating it as a non-taxable benefit. That's good, but simply erasing large portions of those loans would be even better. As the report notes, a growing number of recent grads "find themselves priced out of public service" because they can't make enough to pay the debt.

The report dumps on the General Schedule personnel system "for providing too little latitude to recruit top talent and reward exceptional workers, while also making it too hard to discipline poor performers."

Stier spoke approvingly of linking pay to performance, but with certain safeguards. Some agencies have installed pay for performance, to the fury of labor unions and workers.

Once the employees are hired, keeping them engaged is the next challenge. An engaged workforce -- with staffers who have a sense of personal accomplishment, pride in their work and belief that they are valued as individuals -- results in better service to the taxpayer.

But the bosses have failed to take to workforce engagement seriously. "It has not been viewed as an indispensable means for improving agency performance," according to the road map. Among other things, it recommends that managers "build a clear line of sight from an employee's work to accomplishments or broader objectives and the agency's mission" and develop a more efficient system of rewarding strong performances and dealing with poor performers.

Another element of an effective workforce the report identified, and one that has been noticeably in short supply lately, is strong leadership. Leadership consistently falls to the bottom of a list of workplace categories in agency rankings by the Partnership for Public Service and American University. "Employees in the federal sector are twice as likely as their private-sector counterparts to report that their leaders -- political and career -- do not have the leadership skills needed to do their jobs effectively," the report laments.

The road map has a number of recommendations, including: Provide technical experts advancement opportunities that offer greater pay and responsibility, but "without requiring leadership and management duties for which they may be ill-suited."

In other words, avoid the Peter Principle.

Is there a sure way to do that for elected officials?

Contact Joe Davidson atfederaldiary@washpost.com.

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