Shortages of employees — a common feature of troubled government programs — are hampering a range of services to the public and stressing the federal workforce, the government’s central personnel agency said Wednesday.
The report comes just ahead of a White House budget proposal that is expected to include plans for carrying out a long-term reduction in the federal workforce, as ordered by the Trump administration last April.
In preparing its initial “Federal Workforce Priorities Report,” the Office of Personnel Management, under an initiative it undertook around the same time, reviewed the role workforce issues played in underperforming or at-risk programs at two dozen Cabinet departments and large independent agencies.
OPM found personnel issues factored in 59 percent of programs on the Government Accountability Office’s “high-risk” list and in 38 percent of reports by inspectors general of “management challenges” within their agencies. Specifically, inadequate staff was cited as a problem in 34 percent of the former and 14 percent of latter. Lack of employee skills, and training and development were also common themes.
“The services provided by agencies for the benefit and protection of the American public are dependent upon having the necessary Federal workforce. However, many programs cited capacity shortcomings affecting both the management and mission accomplishment of at least 20 (or 83% of) agencies,” it said.
“Gaps in staffing levels were hampering agency performance or placing performance at risk as well as causing stress for overworked employees. Impacted missions and services included those related to public safety, health care, real estate, business ventures, citizen and veteran benefits, law enforcement, and Federal revenue and cost control activities,” the report said.
In that way the report by OPM — an executive agency reporting to the White House but without confirmed political appointees in its leadership — echoes arguments commonly made by federal employee unions and congressional Democrats.
For example, the National Treasury Employees Union this week said that in a poll of more than 700 of its union leaders in various agencies, more than 80 percent said there is a staff shortage where they work. Federal employees “know better than anyone what happens when a government agency starved of funding and personnel falls behind in its daily duties. The damage is real,” NTEU president Tony Reardon said in a statement.
An OPM database shows that through the latest count last September, the executive branch had 2,087,747 employees, including part-time, seasonal and temporary workers, compared with 2,093,868 at year-end 2016. The figures do not include intelligence agencies or the self-funding U.S. Postal Service.
Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said the report reinforces the importance of agencies having enough well-qualified and well-trained employees. The Partnership produces reports on federal personnel and management issues, conducts training programs and sponsors the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, the top achievement award for federal workers.
“I have spoken to hundreds and hundreds of people in government, and at the end of the day, the human capital challenge is at the heart of the large majority of the big problems,” he said.
The OPM report says while “budgetary constraints are typically cited as the basis of staffing gaps,” difficulties in filling vacancies and high turnover also contribute to the shortages.
“To help address staffing level gaps, some agencies sought to secure funding, implemented targeted hiring initiatives and process improvements, or used contractors to compensate. However, these efforts did not always readily alleviate issues,” it said.
In addition to understaffing, it said, the government is suffering from “skills gaps” in areas including acquisition, information technology, finance, analysis, engineering, and management support. Agencies are challenged even to understand the skill sets they need and have in their workforces, and also in hiring and retaining the right people, it said.
The report also found “difficulties transferring knowledge to new employees, a lack of training for specialized job functions, and gaps in training curriculums” in part because training programs “were often constrained due to tightening budgets.”
In contrast, it found four common denominators where agencies are notably successful in achieving their goals. It said employees are significantly more positive in their responses to questions on the annual workforce survey asking whether: senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment; employees are recognized for providing high quality products and services; managers promote internal communications; and supervisors are committed to a workforce representative of all segments of society.
Along with long-term staffing reductions, the administration’s management initiative calls on agencies to reshape their workforces and to “maximize employee performance.” An OPM memo accompanying its report asked agencies to choose and concentrate over the next three years on two of six recommendations involving succession planning, internal communications, assessing their workforces, and employee development, recognition and health programs.
“There’s nothing on the list that isn’t relevant, but it’s not clear that these are the right priorities,” Stier said. “The most important issue is around the capabilities of managers and leaders to lead and motivate their workforce. It’s not so much the tasks that are the priority, it’s creating a culture where collaboration and communication is the norm.”
However, he praised the emphasis on developing employees and rewarding good performance. “No organization does better if all you do is kick it,” he said.