Voinovich: The workforce senator

George Voinovich has raised the profile of federal workforce issues and earned the respect of union leaders whose views often differ from his

Sen. George Voinovich is a big fan of the A Team. Not the old TV action show. The A Team is the Ohio Republican’s affectionate name for the federal workforce.

When he arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1999 after more than 30 years as an executive in state and local government, Voinovich had this item high on his agenda as a new senator: Getting behind the A Team.

“I’d lobbied [Congress] as president of the National League of Cities and chairman of the National Governors Association,” he said in a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office.

“When I visited [federal] agencies, I had seen that the A Team, the people who were actually doing the work, seemed to be neglected. So I started out with that in mind. That’s why I wanted on the Governmental Affairs Committee.”

Voinovich got the committee assignment he wanted. As a freshman senator and chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee’s Oversight of Government Management and the Federal Workforce Subcommittee, Voinovich immediately got going on workforce issues, said Kristine Simmons, the subcommittee’s staff director from 1999 to 2001.

“He came in and right away asked the questions, ‘What’s happening with the federal workforce? Are people empowered to perform at their best and make decisions?’ ” Simmons said. In the following 10 months, the subcommittee held six hearings related to management and workforce issues, such as managing in the 21st century, training federal employees and offering incentive programs for federal employees.

“Among Republicans, he’s about as good as they come,” said a union official who asked not to be identified. “We would consider him [to have] an open mind. He is certainly willing to meet with us and work with us, and that’s something we’ve always appreciated. He’s always been independently minded, and certainly when Democrats were in the minority, he was one of our best friends.”

Voinovich surprised some people with his interest in the federal workforce. “It’s the first time any committee or subcommittee had devoted that kind of sustained attention to human capital issues in many years,” Simmons said. “He believed in the work of the A Team, the men and women who are doing the work of government.”

Soon after Voinovich arrived in Washington, he convened a human capital working group, which included public policy experts and representatives of federal employee unions. Voinovich asked the group to define the scope of federal workforce challenges and develop solutions. On the academic front, he got Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government engaged in workforce issues in a series of executive meetings on the future of public service.

“We decided we were going to work together to change the climate [in the federal government] to see if we could come up with ways to make it easier for us to attract and retain people and reward them,” he said.

Voinovich’s management experience — 10 years as mayor of Cleveland and eight as governor of Ohio — gave him the clout to seek workforce changes in the federal government, said Comptroller General David Walker.

“One of the things that makes Sen. Voinovich especially credible and effective is that he has been a mayor of a major city and the governor of a major state,” said Walker, who leads the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. “These are not just theoretical issues for him. He has had to deal with them as a chief executive officer at both the state and local level, and he has seen firsthand the importance of human capital issues and experienced the need to implement reforms in government in this important area.”

As mayor of Cleveland, Voinovich was widely credited with bringing the city back from the brink of fiscal disaster. Voinovich attributes his success in large part to the management experience he acquired in local government.

“I can tell you that there were times when I sat in the mayor’s job and said to myself, ‘Thank God I had that five to seven years in county government,’” he said. “It’s entirely different than being a legislator.”

That experience has made Voinovich a more effective federal legislator, Simmons said. 

A persistent approach
“Sen. Voinovich follows up,” Simmons said. “He’s made it his mission to follow up [hearings] and oversight with legislation and trying to get things done.”

Since 2000, Voinovich has propelled numerous measures to support a broader effort to change the workforce. Small pieces go a long way toward cumulative workforce changes, he said. “We’ve been nicking away at it.”

In recent years, he sponsored legislation that allowed NASA and GAO to establish performance-based pay systems. Voinovich said pay for performance is still controversial in government, but he is unwavering in his insistence that changes in the current pay system are necessary if the government wants to compete successfully in the labor market.

The civil service pay system provides incremental pay increases that are largely automatic. Critics say it provides equal rewards to good performers and nonperformers.

“I sincerely believe that if we are going to be competitive, we’ve got to have pay for performance,” Voinovich said.

This year, Voinovich introduced the Federal Workforce Performance Appraisal and Management Improvement Act.

The bill would require agencies to establish performance appraisal systems, involve employees in the development of their personal performance benchmarks, and link those benchmarks to their agencies’ strategic goals and annual performance plans.

The legislation would also require supervisors and employees to have regular conversations about expectations and job performance. That way, Voinovich said when he introduced the bill, “every employee will understand how their job performance is perceived by their boss and, more importantly, how individual work contributes to the agency’s mission.”

Performance evaluations
The outlook for the legislation isn’t clear. It faces opposition from some who oppose a provision that prohibits employees who receive an unacceptable performance evaluation from receiving pay raises. Voinovich said he is trying to reach a compromise with Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), who succeeded Voinovich as chairman of the workforce subcommittee after the Democrats took control of the Senate last year.

Voinovich’s latest bill also would require mandatory training programs to teach supervisors how to conduct performance appraisals, communicate performance expectations and mentor employees. Voinovich said he believes training is an essential part of establishing pay-for-performance systems in government.

“Without training, you can’t do quality,” he said.

Voinovich said he understands that training managers in performance management techniques takes time, and it is more important to get that part right than rush to establish pay-for-performance systems. Getting it wrong will increase the resistance to performance-based pay, he said.

The primary roadblock to widespread deployment of performance-based pay systems in government is opposition by the federal employee unions, Voinovich said. “I don’t know why, because I would think they’d want to have their members be rewarded for what they’re doing.”

Union officials and Voinovich are far apart on changing the civil service pay system. In testimony July 31 before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s federal workforce subcommittee, Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, defended the General Schedule system as fair, transparent and market-based. She described the alternative pay systems at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Transportation Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and the Homeland Security Department as “dismal failures.”

Asked about Voinovich’s strong advocacy of pay for performance, a union official who asked not to be identified said Voinovich would like to see pay for performance, but the official believes it has to be done right. “I think our position is not so far from that. We just don’t believe it can be done right. I think he’s a little bit more optimistic than the unions are.”

Voinovich said opponents must give pay for performance time to mature. “Even if people don’t like it, we should let it go for four or five years,” he said. “Let’s see how it works.”

Despite the employee unions’ rhetoric, Voinovich has a good relationship with them, and he has worked hard over the years to maintain that, Simmons said.

“I remember in his first year in office when he was invited to speak to the American Federation of Government Employees’ conference in Washington, [former AFGE President] Bobby Harnage introduced him as one of the few Republicans who are not afraid to say the word ‘unions,’” she said.

The A team
Employee union officials largely agree that Voinovich’s door is open to them. Kelley, whose organization represents about 150,000 employees at 31 federal agencies and departments, said in a statement provided to Federal Computer Week that “while NTEU has not always agreed with the approach to federal workplace issues advocated by Sen. Voinovich, I have found him willing to listen to the voices of federal employees and their representatives and to give those views respectful and careful consideration.”

Voinovich’s interest in federal employees has not diminished, despite their resistance to some of the changes that he favors.

For Voinovich, it all comes back to the A Team.

“People are the most important thing in our federal government,” he said. “We ought to do everything we can to create an environment where they can participate and be challenged and empowered.”

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Voinovich’s legislative record on workforce issuesBeginning in the 106th Congress, Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) has sponsored more than a dozen workforce bills. His legislative proposals  that have become law include:
  • A provision in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal  2001 that gives the Defense Department authority to reshape the civilian workforce.
  • Workforce provisions put into the Homeland Security Act of 2002. They include requirements that the 24 largest federal agencies designate chief human capital officers, create a CHCO Council, and build human capital strategic planning into annual performance plans and program performance results. The law also requires the Office of Personnel Management to create metrics for assessing agency human capital management.
  • The Senior Executive Service  Reform Act of 2003, which mitigates compression pay in the senior ranks of career federal employees by raising the SES pay cap.
  • The Federal Workforce Flexibility Act of 2003, which lets agencies use recruitment, relocation and retention bonuses to improve their ability to compete with the private sector for top-notch employees.
  • The NASA Workforce Flexibility Act of 2004 and the GAO Human Capital Reform Act of 2004, which give NASA and the Government Accountability Office the authority to establish performance-based pay systems.

— Richard W. Walker

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