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Culture Adjustment to Strengthen the Federal Workforce

“This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in.”

— Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president (1858-1919) 

On April 10, 2013, President Obama released his administration’s proposed FY 2014 budget entitled the OMB Analytical Perspective. Chapters 10 and 11 of the budget both discuss recommended improvements to the federal workforce. Unfortunately, the Administration raises the same issues raised for the past three decades.  The issues include benefits and compensation, the aging and retiring workforce, the antiquated hiring system,  critical skill gaps, and ensuring that federal personnel management is mission focused and data driven.

For decades, organizations like the Partnership for Public Service, Brookings Institute, Merit System Protection Agency and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have studied the federal workforce.  All issues have the same foundation.  Few studies compare the culture of the federal workforce with those areas that define a healthy work culture.

What are the areas that should be measured?  The World Health Organization recommends many. Here are just a few:

  • Communication: How does management share information about the organization?  Is management accessible to employees and encourage feedback?
  • Corporate culture: Does the culture encourage independent thought? Is there a focus on long-term success or short term fallout? Are employees free to act on their convictions?
  • Transparent hiring and promotion systems: Are the promotion systems unbiased?  Is there low turnover or is there a revolving door of employees?  Are future leaders determined by talent or are they determined by relationships?
  • Performance standards: Does the organization create challenging but attainable performance goals that are mutually agreed upon by manager and employee? Are evaluations conducted regularly?
  • Leadership:  Are employees respected by management?  Is diversity in the corporate culture encouraged at every level of management or is it selective where the diverse workforce is primarily at lower grades?
  • Accountability:  Are employees provided the latitude and authority to do their jobs?  Is there a culture of trust between employees and management?  Is everyone held responsible for their behavior?  Who manages the accountability?

There are many factors that reflect a healthy workplace.   Thus far in this year, the Washington Post reported that federal employees were largely dissatisfied with the rewards and performance systems.  Government Executive reported that federal employees see the quality of leadership in their agencies on the decline.

According to Forbes, the culture of an organization is a complex set of roles, processes, values, communication practices, attitudes, and assumptions (7/23/2011).

It is subtle how individuals assimilate into the culture of an organization.  The federal workforce is no different.  The individual accepts a job offer.  Then the young college graduate, idealistic and optimistic with his degrees in hand, joins the federal workforce to help people and improve the quality of life for his fellow Americans.  If the new employee has the skill set, the ability, the personality and the talent that fits, in time he will learn, will adjust, will compromise, will become a “team players,” and in time will become “the government” – an insider to the business of government.  It is those insiders who control the culture of government.  The insiders have the power to shift the culture to one that is more amenable to listening and addressing employee concerns.  This one change will strengthen the federal workforce.  Regrettably, the current federal culture perceives employee concerns as a threat and the culture attacks that threat to maintain the status quo.  Differences are not accepted even when those differences are the result of injured warriors.  Unfortunately some of the very qualities that helped the insiders rise to executive and leadership levels are the qualities that adversely affect the quality of work life for federal employees.  It will take significant courage and power to change this culture, but it can be done.

The federal culture shows up in the Department of Agriculture’s treatment of minority employees and minority farmers.  It is reflected in the disparity in how black employees are treated when they file discrimination complaints.  Agencies delay case processing, manipulate evidence, retaliate and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) fails to enforce its regulations against agency officials.   It is reflected in its treatment of disabled veteran, Army Ranger Justin Slaby, who after serving two tours of duty in Afghanistan, lost his left hand when a stun grenade prematurely exploded in a training exercise in 2004. Notwithstanding the fact that Ranger Slaby passed a fitness-for-duty exam in 2010, including proving how he could shoot while wearing either of his two state-of-the-art prosthetics, his lawsuit proved that “the FBI instructors at the academy in Quantico responded to his presence with incredible hostility and abject disrespect.”

Winning this lawsuit is a victory for Ranger Slaby, however, it will do little to stymie the culture that rewards those who abuse fellow employees.

The culture of retaliation is reflected when men and women in the military are afraid to report rape for fear of retaliation from those in their chain of command.  This culture exists in both the civilian and the military workforce.   According to the EEOC’s director of the federal sector, retaliation is the most common complaint filed by federal employees.  Each year the number of complaints filed for retaliation increases on average 4 percent.  Yet, there is no attempt to address the culture that discourages employees from raising concerns of wrong doing or filing complaints. Until the federal government as an institution acknowledges and addresses its corporate culture, attempts to improve any other area will be little more than moving the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.  Continuing to ignore this behavior will continue to impact the efficiency and safe delivery of government programs and services.  The federal workforce needs a culture adjustment.


Author(s): The Coalition for Change is a not-for-profit organization made up of current and former federal employees.  The organization recently released a rebuttal to the EEOC’s report on the obstacles facing African-American federal employees.  That report can be found at www.coalition4change.org.

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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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