How the Labor Relations Authority got its groove back -- and made employees happy

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; B03

Not long ago, the Federal Labor Relations Authority was a real backwater.

Little known in the best of times, it was understaffed, underfunded and underachieving. Employee morale was in the pits.

The agency had lost its way and its calling. Bush administration policies left the organization stagnant and malnourished. Its mission of promoting strong labor-management relations in the federal government, in part by resolving complaints of unfair labor practices and negotiation stalemates, was largely unfulfilled.

But things have changed. On Wednesday, the FLRA is being celebrated as the most improved agency on the list of Best Places to Work in the Federal Government, published by the Partnership for Public Service and American University's School of Public Affairs.

This year, the agency's score jumped 2.5 times. Last year, it was a true bottom feeder, coming in last among all small agencies. It now ranks 20 out of 34, still far from the top but a great improvement nonetheless.

"We need to be mindful of the fact that when you're so close to rock bottom, you have one way to go and that's up," said Thomas M. Beck, a member of the agency and its immediate past chairman.

Overwhelmingly, the driving factor in the agency's improved standing was the 418 percent surge in the score employees gave the agency's senior leadership. That's in keeping with the findings of the best places survey across government: "The 2010 survey for the fifth time in a row showed the primary driver in the federal space is effective leadership, and in particular, senior leadership."

The lesson the FLRA experience has for top government managers? "There are things that you can do that make a difference in how committed and how engaged your employees are," said John Palguta, the Partnership for Public Service's vice president for policy, and those things have an impact on the agency's performance. (The Washington Post and Palguta's group collaborate on print and online projects).

Lisa Vandenberg, president of the FLRA's Union of Authority Employees, put it this way: "Our program and our mission are once again of significance and importance to people who are leading the agency. We are back on track in carrying out our mission."

It's impressive how often federal employees refer to their sense of mission when talking about their agencies. They want their service to count. In the case of the FLRA, statistics show tat the job is now getting done:

In fiscal 2009, the agency issued 215 decisions. That's nearly twice as many as from the two previous years combined. The pending case inventory has dropped more than 40 percent since February 2009, and the average waiting time of a pending case is down 35 percent. Staffing is up 10 percent from its lowest level of 118 in fiscal 2008, and the agency's budget is growing.

But stats, impressive though they may be, never tell the whole story. It's the people side of the equation that makes the difference. Making things different for employees didn't happen by chance. It never does.

Among other things, Carol Waller Pope, the FLRA chairman, visited Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials to learn why that agency rates so high year after year. For the third consecutive year, the NRC tops the large-agency list.

"It's what we all know: communication, empowering employees, getting the mission done, making employees proud of what they do," Pope said.

In concrete terms, that meant Pope did things like starting a weekly, electronic newsletter; honoring retirees; routinely meeting with senior career employees and political appointees; and holding the first national all-staff town meeting, with video conferencing for those outside of Washington. And don't forget the softball team.

"If you don't like your work, you don't like your boss, you don't like your environment, you're going to drag yourself to work every day," Palguta said, "but you are not going to do your best work."

Pope also made structural changes.

"We have an internal HR shop again," she said, "which we did not have for a number of years. It was contracted out."

Better technology "exponentially increased" her shop's ability to serve customers, she said, by allowing them to more easily search its Web site for decisions, which are now posted within 24 hours.

She gave managers greater decision-making authority. Increased teleworking helped improve the work-life balance for employees. More effective management of the FLRA staff was added to performance goals listed with the Office of Management and Budget.

Key vacancies were filled, and that improved both performance and morale. The chief information officer was recruited from the White House. The HR director came over from the Government Printing Office. The budget director was lured back to the FLRA from the Merit Systems Protection Board.

The FLRA has become "a place where people enjoy working and where people want to come to work," Pope said. She shares credit for that with Beck: The "turnaround did begin with him."

When he arrived in October 2008, Beck found that "the agency was so beleaguered." But he also discovered a group of employees dedicated to its mission and committed to again making it a proud place.

"Now," he said, "the agency is beginning to come into full flower."

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