Federal Diary: Promised Labor-Management Partnerships Aren't Here Yet

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The federal government functions like an elaborate dance. But the steps can be confusing, making it easy for Uncle Sam, never to be mistaken for Alvin Ailey or Mikhail Baryshnikov, to trip over his big feet.

Dancing is easier when you have a good partner. There are 2 million potential ones -- federal employees -- just waiting to dance with Sam.

They could get their dance card punched sometime soon, when the Obama administration issues an executive order creating the type of labor-management partnership with federal employees that existed under the Clinton administration.

"There will be a partnership executive order at some point. It will happen," Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said to applause from the Coalition for Effective Change. The coalition, an organization that works to improve the federal civil service, celebrated its 15th anniversary with a forum yesterday that examined the relationship between federal labor unions and the government.

President Bill Clinton created partnerships with an executive order in 1993. It called on labor and management representatives to meet regularly in order to foster a more cooperative relationship between employees and management at the agency level, with increased productivity being a helpful by-product. Labor leaders like the idea because it gives them a sustained voice in workplace decisions.

But President George W. Bush displayed his antipathy for the partnerships by canceling Clinton's order soon after taking office. Despite Bush's action, some partnerships managed to survive. "In the IRS today we are working at the highest levels" in a cooperative, collaborative relationship, though involvement of front-line workers is lagging, Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, told the forum. Partnerships are a top priority for 95 percent of the leaders in her organization, she added.

And Darryl Perkinson, president of the Federal Managers Association, said "whatever we call it, partnerships need to be the essence" of the relationship between employees and the administration.

Kelley and Perkinson may already have on their dancing shoes, but it's not certain when President Obama will re-create the partnerships. "We're very close," Berry said of the planned executive order. The White House, however, is being pulled in so many directions that getting the executive order to the top of the president's to-do list is like "trying to find a pathway through the flames," Berry added.

Berry, who was introduced as the Energizer bunny, has developed an ambitious plan with short- and long-term goals to restructure the way the federal government deals with employees. Within the next year, he plans to start reforming recruitment and hiring practices, improving work life and workplace conditions, and increasing federal employment of veterans. His long-term goals are increasing federal workforce diversity, controlling federal employee health-care costs while maintaining benefits and reorganizing the federal pay system.

These issues likely will be agenda items at a conference on making the government a model employer that Berry said he's planning for September.

He emphasizes that Frankie and Flo Fed are important to the president by frequently invoking Obama's name and that of Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget. Orszag certainly has been supportive of Berry's aggressive efforts, by putting the weight of the White House behind initiatives ranging from benefits for same-sex partners of federal employees, to fixing the broken hiring system, to restructuring federal employee pay.

Berry said the White House has three top priorities when it comes to federal employees: creating a fair performance evaluation system, improving training and closing the pay gap with the private sector.

"The president really sees this as a legacy opportunity," Berry said.

Obama is willing to raise federal pay so that it is more comparable with business, but a meaningful worker assessment mechanism is the other side of that coin. Berry said Obama and Orszag told him not to ask for employee pay raises until he has created "a performance appraisal system that will work for employees, for managers and for the public."

He emphasized that system is not the Pentagon's much criticized pay-for-performance system, nor is it the union-favored General Schedule system. "I am not trying to advance anything that has been created to date," he said.

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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