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Fresh Take: Leadership will, or leadership won’t -- Fixation on firing Feds, Part IV

For civil service reform to be effective, it must be accompanied by the leadership will to carry it out. That's why a new survey that focuses on leadership is so important: A focus on leadership is the first step to focusing on reform.

Did you know that federal executives who believe performance and ability are the key factors in promotions and firing actions are more likely to recommend public service as a career to young people? 

This and other interesting facts were released in a July report called “Survey on the Future of Government Service.” The report is based on a survey of federal executives conducted by Vanderbilt University’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in cooperation with the Volcker Alliance and Princeton University. 

Two things are striking about this report. One, the groups conducting the survey are not among the “usual suspects.” Two, the survey response rate is 24 percent (3,551 out of 14,698 federal executives responded).

Then there is the survey approach. This survey measures the state of federal public service along four lines: Recruitment, Retention, Promotion, and Dismissal. Rather than focus on best-places-to-work scores, the survey examines the capacity, capabilities, skills, and accountability of the workforce and its leaders. 

Federal executives were asked if underperforming managers and employees were reassigned or dismissed. While 6 percent thought managers were reassigned or dismissed “within six months,” 64 percent said “rarely or never.” And when executives were asked if they had good understanding of the key statutes related to managing the career civil service—meaning the Merit System Principles and Prohibited Personnel Practices—75 percent responded that they did. Within that 75 percent, 80 percent of career executives answered “yes” versus just 56 percent of political appointees.

This illustrates the paradox found within these responses. While 64 percent say that underperforming managers were rarely or never reassigned or dismissed, 75 percent claim to have a good understanding of the statutes related to reassigning or dismissing employees when warranted. Perhaps more significantly, political appointees do not feel as well-trained, confident, or familiar with the underlying statutes, including those around dismissal, as do career executives. 

Imagine you are one of these executives—you feel you understand the laws governing civil service, yet you don’t take action when it’s warranted. Why not? The question is a good one. Is it lack of confidence? Perhaps lack of upper management support? Has the process become so obfuscated it feels too risky to act? Is it a lack of leadership will? Do you lack documentation? Do you fear the action will result in a complaint or protracted appeal process? If you lose on appeal, does it adversely impact your own career? Is the person a favorite of yours—or maybe your boss or boss’s boss?

All of these are reasons managers and executives say keep them from acting constructively when it comes to disciplinary, performance and firing actions. I encourage federal managers to assess six dimensions of managerial readiness:

  • Your experience working on formal proceedings
  • The effect of the action or non-action on the work environment
  • The impact on your personal career
  • Your manager’s track record of supporting you
  • The degree of communication you’ve had with your management
  • Your ability to work with senior management on difficult matters

If executives never engage or address performance problems, government begins the slow unwinding of internal capacity. Skills are eroded, potentially lost forever, and the government loses its ability to recruit high-quality talent. Talented people are attracted to employers of similarly talented people. Removing performance accountability, or not acting when it becomes a problem, does not speak to the high standards of performance that highly talented recruits seek. Loss of talent equals lost capacity, and lost capacity compromises mission execution. Continued loss of talent leads to mission failure. 

The report states that the federal personnel system is “stressed”—which is another way of saying that it no longer meets the needs of employees, managers and executives. Its analysis concludes that there should be civil service reform, and that it be based on “hard data.”

While it’s easy to agree with the concept that reforms should be based on hard data, it’s a lot harder to find that hard data, especially if that “data” reflects the opinions and feelings of leadership. And in the federal sector, leadership complexity increases with the growing number of political appointees whose tenure is usually brief, and whose vision has an attendant, near-sighted horizon. 

There are many areas where civil service reform should be enacted and where it previously has been attempted. But reforms as expansive as civil service reform don’t come in small piecemeal, pilot-sized packages. Since the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, most reforms have been related to compensation, with innumerable experiments with pay banding and performance-based pay.

Recently, “accountability as reform” is leading the charge. Among the measures in this pack are pension penalties, truncated administrative leave options, and shorter appeal adjudication periods for employees subject to disciplinary or removal action. 

Bite-sized reform initiatives have a high failure rate and are revoked at some point. In some, albeit rare, cases, they are adopted government-wide with weak or mediocre results that all can share. For civil service reform to be effective, it must be accompanied by the leadership will to carry it out. That is why this survey is so important. It focuses on leadership, and that is the first step to focusing on reform.


Linda Brooks Rix, founder and co-CEO of Avue Technologies, is a blogger, veterans advocate and federal human capital management expert.


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