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Mission Must Also Drive Agency Administrative Support Systems

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bob Joyce
July 23, 2018

In 2018-19, gross funding levels have been approved for civilian and military functions. Civilian Federal agencies may be facing 20-30 percent workforce and support funding cuts in some program delivery work units, while intelligence and military agencies functions absorb increases of the same magnitude. Whether it is stopping the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from acting against payday lenders or requiring the Department of Energy to develop nuclear mortars, the resulting mission confusion and distortion can only be overcome if the administrative skeleton in each agency stands strong in support of the agency mission: the career Senior Executives (SES); the Policy and Budget team (PBT); Personnel, Training, Contracts, Information Management (IM) and the Office of Inspector General (IG) or internal audit.

Reductions-in-force and unplanned growth both stretch mission engagement and employee empowerment to breaking points across functions and locations. Specific program delivery and technical capabilities are usually the primary focus of politically motivated budget cuts or increases, but the constraints in a program or technical function ripple across the agency and other Federal offices in the same geographic location as reductions-in-force or reorganization enhancements take place. The senior career leadership and administrative bones of the organization must step up to maintain focus on mission results despite the confusion created by disruptive contraction or expansion. The simple appropriation of funding by Congress does not mean that the funds will be made available or that thy can be used effectively.

Senior career executives need to talk about and focus the agency’s workforce on mission performance: the input balance, work processes and systems delivering outputs to stakeholders and clients, and achievement of intended results. The workforce must be supported, action authorities delegated and successes recognized. In addition, the career senior executives must act as a buffer to allow individual employees and groups to walk away from any stupid and illegal actions proposed or encouraged by individuals with political or personal agendas. If a “request” reduces resources dedicated to mission completion objectives, then it needs to be questioned, sidetracked or just ignored. Senior executives need to keep the workforce focused on the mission and shield the workforce from deviant demands.

The disparate members of the PBT sometimes do not get along, but they will have to develop their own master plan using their joint, shared capabilities. This plan will probably differ from a narrowly focused, legal requirements approach because it must focus on pragmatic budget decisions designed to maximize economic (efficient and effective) accomplishments in a distorted environment. Reductions-in-force, massive early retirements and voluntary separation bonuses, large reductions in contract and grant funds, and ignoble leadership demands distort structures and people in organizations. As conditions change, planning targets and budget allocations need to adapt. PBT and the SES must make and communicate these changes. Many times, 80 percent of an objective can be accomplished with the first 20 percent of the targeted resources. Then a decision must be made on whether it is cost effective to reallocate some of the remaining resources to another strategic mission objective. As goals are accomplished and resources used, the relative investment values of the different mission objectives may change.

Personnel runs reductions-in-force and the recruitment and selection of new hires. Personnel must operate with the utmost integrity and sympathy. When a supervisor complains angrily that a young lady who just stopped cold an attempt to hack the agency information management systems received a 30 day separation notice or the proposed certificate of potential new hires is not satisfactory, have a positive response; do something. Make outplacement plans; set up joint information exchanges with other agencies. If the world can have “LinkedIn,” the Federal agencies can have their own “Shared-In.”

Personnel also must decide if new intra-agency action teams need to be established. Budget and staff reductions can pull people away from necessary activities. Flexible teams supported by adequate training and travel funds can meet those suspended requirements with innovative ideas and energy. Special teams could revisit issues involving homeless veterans, land use in Western states, flood water management in the East and joint funded or Federal, State, and local cooperative agreements to improve transportation infrastructure. Participation on an agency or even interagency team should be a positive career experience.

Training also must stand up. Supervisors need to relearn how to talk to employees that are being separated and train new employees. Programs need to be put in place in how to prepare resumes and interview for new jobs. Employees approaching retirement need appropriate training sessions. And specific technical training may have to be fast tracked for talented individuals to fit into needed, new iobs most effectively. One decision Training must make is to push for an agency e-training university or a “we-tube” that puts needed information literally at every employee’s fingertips.

Personnel and Training always must remember that their joint goal is to build the best mission workforce possible whether that the workforce status is organizationally Federal. State and local, and/or private sector. We need the best people whether they are guiding people down the Colorado river on a raft or cleaning up an industrial or mining superfund site regardless of the instrument used to pay them.

In addition to scratching every existing contract for every spare dollar, Contracts has a big decision to make. Does Contracts build a parallel mission host organization outside the agency and make positions in the new organization available to current agency employees? Does Contracts overtly open up the market and use competition and available employees under new management structures to lower overall costs and/or improve agency contractor performance? At the same time, Contracts needs to support Personnel and Training in their agency mission workforce development responsibilities.

IM must protect agency information and be prepared to set up new protocols for special teams and agency-wide actions. Can IM set-up an easy to use and secure information and communication network involving a 20-person team in 15 different public and private locations? Can IM provide Personnel with an information bank to process 1,000 employee records or employment applications and select 200 persons for interviews or reassignments in 24 hours? Can IM support agency-wide e-training? If senior executives wanted to establish a senior review committee of retired Federal employees to interact with the workforce and be a sounding board for mission and workforce changes, could IM support an ad-hoc type structure for such an advisory group? Unusual activity increases information and communication needs; IM must deliver.

Finally, the IG has three roles. One, it needs to generate a mission scorecard based on the legislative and regulatory roles and responsibilities of the agency. Senior leadership need to be reminded constantly that available resources are to be applied proportionately to legal requirements. In addition, because effective management and supervision are two critical, but most unappreciated keys to workforce performance, the IG needs to review directed reassignments and determine if the new placements potentially add to or subtract from agency performance.  The IG mission scorecard may differ from the PBT economic targets and the IG personnel reassignment scoreboard may question Personnel actions, but this should lead to open internal and public dialogue and better mission performance decisions. Finally, the IG needs to review personnel, travel, and contract actions of “entitled” political appointees; resources must be guarded at all levels.

The administrative skeleton of the agency must carry the load during periods of mission mutation and distortion. Whether new agency “evidence” based reforms and “creative innovation” projects follow the micro-project efficiency approach of Carter, the battle axe approach of Reagan, the thousand cuts approach of Clinton, or the spot removal approach of Obama, senior career leadership and administrative systems need to support the program and technical workforce in its mission delivery job. And the renewal of infrastructure, building affordable housing, providing clean energy, fixing the opioid crisis, and other expanded roles require a cohesive senior executive team and progress enabling management systems. We need to start now to meet future needs with resolve and imagination.

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