Margaret Weichert, the acting Office of Personnel Management director, talks with reporters about civil service issues on Oct. 11. (Office of Personnel Management)
Columnist

Margaret Weichert would like a yes with federal labor leaders.

Yes on ways to change the civil service system so that it provides more flexibility and accountability. She believes the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey released last week demonstrates that federal workers want that change, and union leaders should get on board.

But as President Trump’s leading light on government personnel and management issues, she represents an administration that finds emphatic ways to say no.

No to the labor-management forums that Trump killed last year.

No to long-standing collective bargaining and union representation procedures through Trump’s executive orders that have been largely blocked by a federal-court decision.

No to a pay raise for federal employees in 2019, as Trump’s pay freeze proposal would mean, while urging a $143.5 billion cut in their retirement over 10 years.

No to major federal union participation in the administration’s recent symposium on the federal workforce.

The result — a distrustful, dysfunctional labor-management relationship.

Weichert uses negative survey responses to push her argument that a new, more flexible personnel system is needed to eventually replace the nearly 70-year-old General Schedule, a pay and classification system covering most federal workers. Only about a quarter of the survey respondents agreed that “pay raises depend on how well employees perform their jobs.” Under a third said “steps are taken to deal with a poor performer.” Less than 40 percent think “promotions . . . are based on merit” and “differences in performance are recognized in a meaningful way.”

These are serious issues. How to deal with them is in dispute.

American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) President J. David Cox Sr. said the survey results point to “poor management.”

During an interview with the Federal Insider last week, Weichert, who doubles as Office of Management and Budget deputy director for management, and acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, was critical of the unions’ approach to change as she expressed a willingness to engage.

I think it’s really disingenuous to say you represent employees, but you know better than them about what needs to be done,” she said.

Note that union leaders haven’t said they know better, and the survey data don’t indicate which system employees favor. “I would like to work with unions on getting to yes on some of these things,” she said.

Disingenuous? Cox countered with “hundreds of thousands of federal employees have voted to have their union represent them on matters such as pay, benefits and working conditions.” Jeff Pon, who was OPM director until earlier this month, never responded to an invitation to meet with AFGE, the largest federal union, which has had no meetings with Weichert, according to Cox.

The things Weichert would like to get to yes on include alternatives to the General Schedule. For Weichert, the survey data mean the government needs a new system, one with greater focus, in her view, on performance and accountability. She hopes to get there though pilot projects rather than wholesale change.

Any change would need employee buy-in to be successful.

OMB’s workforce symposium last month called on the administration to “collaborate with labor organizations,” which represent a significant portion of the workforce. The collaboration record ranges from not much to not at all.

“You can’t create a high-performance culture, which requires trust and engagement from the workforce, while you are stripping away workers’ protections,” said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. “Yet they do it anyway.”

Weichert rejects arguments that the current system is fine, managers just need better training. There are “no data that can show me this is a training problem,” she said.

Here’s data:

A Government Accountability Office report in December said that less than 6 percent of the workforce used “seven broadly available government-wide special payment authorities to help address recruitment and retention challenges. … Agencies reported that manager training would likely improve use of special payment authorities.”

Among several Merit Systems Protection Board reports on training, one published in 2016 cited surveys of employees and found that “a disappointingly large number” of personnel officers “responded that they had received little or no training” in the government’s merit-system principles or prohibited personnel practices.

“If this administration believes that the federal government is not sufficiently employing pay-for-performance, they need look no further than the agency managers who evaluate employees and recommend them for rewards or demerits,” Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said after meeting with Weichert on Friday. “If management used it properly, the system allows for federal employees who are not meeting performance expectations to be denied pay increases, promotions or to be removed from service, while high achievers can be properly rewarded.”

His meeting with Weichert was a departure — perhaps a promising one — from the administration’s counterproductive practice of thwarting communication with unions, when not combating them. The most recent example was the decision not to include the major unions in OMB’s workforce symposium last month. Out of more than 80 organizations, only the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents relatively few federal employees, was invited to participate.

Asked about the absence of labor organizations that are bigger players in the federal sector, Weichert, whose OMB duties include federal workforce issues, lamely blamed Democrats.

“I actually asked Democratic members of Congress who I should invite because I wanted the unions there,” she said, “and I invited the recommendations that the Democratic representatives that I spoke to gave me. … I don’t actually know the unions super well.”

She’s new at OPM and getting to know them should be on her to-do list, especially since her OPM staffers are represented by the American Federation of Government Employees.

“NFFE does not have a relationship with Ms. Weichert,” Erwin said. “However, I would welcome it. We can be civil and agree to disagree at times. I think no communication is worse than some awkwardness."

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