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New appointments draw attention to reformed FLRA

Even as agencies reel under looming cuts and possible furloughs, the Federal Labor Relations Authority—overseer of most mechanisms that govern and adjudicate fair pay and benefits for federal employees—continues to remake itself as several top members prepare to retain their seats under President Obama's second administration.

Even as agencies reel under looming cuts and possible furloughs, the Federal Labor Relations Authority—overseer of most mechanisms that govern and adjudicate fair pay and benefits for federal employees—continues to remake itself as several top members prepare to retain their seats under President Obama's second administration.

The FLRA’s leadership—or "decisional authority"—usually comprises three presidentially appointed members, including one who also serves as the chairman. All three members sit for five-year terms, and direct the agency’s more than 100 employees, as well as function as the final word on the labor-management cases over issues of representation, arbitration, negotiability and unfair labor practices that are referred by components of the agency. 

President Obama in December chose to reappoint two of the three FLRA members whose terms were ending—member Ernie DuBester and FLRA Chairman Carol Waller Pope.

More recently, DuBester, who will serve as chairman until Pope is confirmed, also appointed Sarah W. Spooner as executive administrator. Spooner’s recent trajectory took her from her position as counsel for regulatory and external affairs to become acting executive administrator.

FLRA—then and now

In 1978, Congress passed the Civil Service Reform Act, and the FLRA was created to govern non-postal federal employees and their rights to organize, bargain collectively, and—as the agency website puts it—“to participate through labor organizations of their choice in decisions affecting their working lives.” The agency oversees the Office of the General Counsel, the Federal Service Impasses Panel and the Office of Administrative Law Judges.

The FLRA and its components are spread among seven regional offices that handle roughly 4,000 cases a year. Through those offices, FLRA ultimately administers labor-management relations for 2.1 million non-postal federal employees worldwide—about 1.2 million of whom are union-represented in 2,200 bargaining units. 

The agency also serves as an "honest broker" in situations where feds are selecting a new organization to represent them. Most recently, for example, FLRA in 2012 administered the election in which Transportation Security Administration employees voted to choose the American Federation of Government Employees to become their exclusive representative.

Reforms in place since 2009

Spooner, who will serve as FLRA executive director and chief operating officer, told FEND that in the last three years, “the FLRA has engaged in a process of revitalization, reinvention, and reengagement.”

As a longtime career employee of FLRA, Spooner explained that these reforms had become necessary, because by 2009 “serious human capital, performance management, and employee morale issues had developed.”

Or, as then-incoming Chairman Pope said in a 2009 a radio interview: “I inherited the agency, I would say, at the lowest point in its 30-year history.”

“We were the 34th small agency in the employee satisfaction ranking—out of 34. My tagline was ‘We have nowhere to go but up,’” she added.

With FLRA a low priority under the Bush administration, the agency's problems mushroomed. Perhaps worst among those problems was the agency's failure to hire and manage its funds efficiently—and Congress responded by trimming the agency’s budget. At that point, the then-roughly 130-person agency suffered an even deeper drop in morale as workload and funding became even less well-matched.

After her appointment, Pope and the rest of the new leadership worked to turn around what she noted as “the lack of enthusiasm” among employees and frustration by agencies with elays in FLRA’s decision-making.

Crucial cures, according to Pope and observers, have included revamping office technology, redesigning the agency’s website, and reducing case backlog—and inviting employees to participate in addressing these and other key problems. Last but not least, the agency also was able to drum up the necessary resources to effect the needed improvements.

So far, the reforms have worked. Just two years into reform, the 2011 Office of Personnel Management's Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey found FLRA had rocketed up from 34th to 7th in employee satisfaction among small agencies—with employee satisfaction with agency leadership rising from 30 percent to over 71 percent. Since that time, the latest OPM survey in 2012 shows FLRA has maintained those gains, coming in 8th.

“Through the effective management of resources and the hard work and dedication of agency leadership and employees, the FLRA has, since 2009, transformed itself from an agency marked by numerous deficiencies to one marked by numerous successes,” Spooner told FEND.

Spooner said she is committed to "carrying out the vision of the FLRA’s leadership, emphasizing mission accomplishment and performance improvement through transparency, employee engagement, and collaboration so as to inspire public confidence in our mission performance and management.”

Awaiting Senate action

Until Spooner’s appointment and Pope’s renewal as chairman are approved by the Senate, the agency is operating with only one confirmed member, DuBester, who now also is serving as temporary chairman

But in a statement issued last month, the FLRA insisted that “without exception, work continues uninterrupted" at the Office of the General Counsel, Office of Administrative Law Judges and the Federal Service Impasses Panel "because these components are not affected by the lack of a quorum in the Authority component.”

With all other components functioning, only a relatively small number of cases handed up to the three-member decisional authority are being held up because of the missing members.

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