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Sequester, Scandal and Service: What is Strengthening Our Federal Workforce?

In the well known series of “Memos to National Leaders” from the National Academy of Public Administration, Stephen Condrey, Rex Facer, and Jared Llorens prescribed recommendations for “Strengthening the Federal Workforce.” These detailed policy proposals are focused on human resources/personnel oriented solutions which reflect the authors’ area of management expertise.

All three academics have written extensively (articles, textbooks, books, etc.) on human resource management in the public sector. In addition to being the current President of the American Society for Public Administration, Dr. Condrey was appointed with Dr. Facer by President Obama to serve on the Federal Salary Council in November 2010. Clearly, some of our best thinkers are on the case here.

On the flip side, the historic Obama second term has been bogged down early on by self-inflicted injuries from employees in the executive branch. Events tagged “scandals” by the media that can be torn from current headlines may weaken rather than strengthen the workforce:

Perhaps this behavior has been going on since the beginning of time and we only learn now because of the continuous media cycle or perhaps these are examples of a real systemic problem. The reality is that (at least in my lifetime) every two term President had scandal overshadowing his second term – some even had scandals in their first term! Not only is this nothing new, but public employees also have been subject to disparagement since the beginning of the republic.

Scandals are complicated by the specter of employee furloughs, operational cutbacks and budget reductions brought on by a combination of fiscal deficits and an economic downturn, now commonly referred to as the “sequester.” While the actual impact of the sequester may or may not be much ado about nothing, the term “sequester” has become part of our daily lexicon.

Will it get worse? Sean Reilly, writing in the Federal Times, noted that the Office of Management and Budget issued instructions to federal agencies to submit budget requests for FY 2015 that are 5 percent lower than originally outlined, and to include a further 10 percent reduction in discretionary funding. Instructions also included a separate section on how agencies can reduce overlap, program fragmentation and duplication – a smarter way to build smaller budgets.

Scandal and sequester contribute to our losing sight of the millions of dedicated men and women who trudge off to work every day in the service of their country, as well as the millions more who serve the public in their local communities, cities, counties and states.

The federal workforce is spread across many agencies (each source has a different number) and comprises political appointees, senior executives, and career employees. Stephen Losey, in the Federal Times, notes that the federal workforce in May 2013 dropped to its lowest level in five years and was down 20 percent from its peak in May 2010, to 2,748,000 employees. According to the United States Office of Personnel Management’s 2012 Common Characteristics of the Government report, the average…

  • Federal salary is $76,353.
  • Employee age is 47.
  • Almost half possess a college or advanced college degree.
  • Length of service from 16.2 years in 2007, decreased to 13.8 in 2012.
  • Separation rate over last five years was 5.6%.

Those demographics would seem to point to the workforce “average employee” being someone at or nearing the height of their career. The issue does not seem to be the lack of available positions. Eric Katz, in Government Executive, reported that the federal government was seeking to fill 27,000 positions, despite the budget cuts. On USAJOBS.gov, there were 114 Senior Executive Service (SES) openings – those leaders of our federal employees.

Opportunities exist internally and externally beyond scandal and sequester as part of “service” to strengthen the federal workforce. ASPA’s website, among other sources, advertises formal education programs.  George Washington University has the Senior Leadership Program and Emerging Leaders Program.  The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University has the Program for Senior Managers in Government. American University claims the only Key Executive Leadership MPA program in the nation and it is designed for federal employees. Other universities and colleges around the nation are available to those in fly over country (outside D.C.), not to mention distance learning and online degrees.

Internally, the Office of Personnel Management website has an extensive list of services it provides to other federal agencies. Among them is the Federal Executive Institute’s four week Leadership for a Democratic Society program, Management Development Centers, Center for Leadership Development, Individual/Executive Development Plans, Individual Learning Accounts, mentoring and coaching, and workforce restructuring assistance with federal agencies.

Another example, the Leadership Excellence and Achievement Program (LEAP), is a 12-month part-time developmental program at the Department of Justice. It prepares candidates to be future leaders at Justice and fulfill its succession planning. The “hands-on” LEAP includes assessments, class work, reading assignments, a 120 day detail outside the candidates’ component, coaching, mentoring and a group project.

The Federal Executive Boards are a network of federal agencies geographically located outside Washington, D.C., coordinated through the Office of Personnel Management. “Human Capital Readiness” was one of their focus categories in 2012. The Boards provide training to federal employees on leadership, recruitment and retention, and other areas. “Workforce Development and Support” is an operational objective within the Network’s FY 2013-2017 Strategic and Operational Plan.

The federal workforce currently has access to numerous employee development programs. The “Memos to National Leaders” and other recommendations may serve to strengthen the federal workforce – but none of them will restore the well publicized breach of trust from recent activities that create perceptions of poor decision making, questionable ethics, and ineffective leadership.

A clue may lie in what the employees themselves have to say. The Partnership for Public Service released its 2013 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government. This series of employee generated polls produced additional subject oriented reports on effective leadership from the perspective of employees and the senior executive service. Not surprisingly, employees cited a need for more effective leadership and many would appreciate the ability to be more innovative in their jobs. The new “normal” for the public sector is doing more with less.  The best leaders listen to their employees. In the end, it all comes back to “service.”

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Author: John J. Carroll, Ph.D., M.P.A., Assistant Professor for Public Administration, Huizenga School of Business & Entrepreneurship, Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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