Management Watch

Collaboration: The key to solving common management problems

It’s a familiar refrain: doing more with less. Budget austerity, not just in the U.S. but across the world, has forced government managers to rethink strategies on how to up productivity while slashing costs. A new white paper examining the top issues public-sector managers in the U.K. are struggling with found that decreasing procurement costs and cutting staffing costs while increasing productivity are particularly challenging areas.

It’s hardly surprising these are the same issues U.S. federal managers are grappling with. The report highlights how both internal and external relationships are the first step to surviving shrinking budgets. A strategic collaboration involving colleagues, partners, stakeholders and the public can help solve everything from procurement challenges to squeezing IT budgets even further, the report suggested.

“Traditionally, well-managed local authorities . . . might co-ordinate spending on vehicles to get the best prices for new additions to their fleet — whether the vehicles were to be used by Housing, Education, Environmental or other service departments,” according to the report.

But getting that collaboration started to increase the buying power might be tricky. Bureaucracy, costs and lack of personnel are factors that previously prevented two or more procurement teams from working together. However, with online collaboration tools gaining traction, “large-scale, co-operative procurement” could be within reach, the report noted.

Despite pay freezes, sinking morale and increasing fiscal pressures, federal managers find themselves having to somehow increase productivity. The report suggests that one way to do so would be to allow employees to telework because “this not only cuts office overheads, but also increases motivation among employees with young families or other commitments that require greater flexibility.”

However, telework comes with its own problems. The report noted that traditional teamwork tends to suffer, and tracking remote employees’ progress and performance could be problematic. Although surveys have shown that teleworking saves money in terms of commuting cost and time, telework could increase traveling costs for face-to-face meetings.

Telework is rarely discussed without mentioning security, whether it’s employees who bring home laptops with sensitive information or fail to use up-to-date security solutions. However, the report pointed out these issues don’t apply exclusively to teleworkers but also to employees who work in different offices or locations or travel regularly as part of job.

Good online collaboration tools keep employees connected and costs down, according to the report. For example, it touts cloud-based collaboration as a solution that can provide project management tools (calendars, task lists and reminders), while at the same reducing the need for face-to-face meetings. And secure online collaboration would help solve problems such as unsecure email attachments and firewall blocking, the report said.

It's worth nothing the white paper was produced by Kahootz, which is a provider of communication and collaboration tools, but the report nonetheless gives good pointers on how managers can overcome some of the common struggles.

Posted by Camille Tuutti on Sep 07, 2012 at 12:19 PM0 comments

Pay freeze extension: Not the worst thing in the world, readers say

When Obama announced feds would finally get a pay raise, the good news was clouded with the stipulation it would happen only after Congress passed the budget – no earlier than April 2013.

Readers weren’t exactly overjoyed by the announcement of a pay-freeze extension, and took the opportunity to slam the decision as well as squabble about politics and play the blame game.

"What federal worker in their right mind would vote for this guy?" asked one commenter. "Especially after a two-year freeze. Now [Barack Obama] wants to continue it."

That comment was quickly rebutted by another reader who said the alternative, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, would be no better and probably worse.

"Romney has talked about cutting pay and benefits combined by as much as 30-40 percent. What federal worker in their right mind would vote for a pay cut!?!" the reader asked.

Gkamgb acknowledged the pay raise was long overdue, but noted the extension of the freeze wasn’t the worst that could happen.

“Do I want a pay raise? Of course I do. Do I think it’s time? Of course I do. Am I happy that I may have to wait several more months to get a raise? No, I'm not. . . .  I've been around long enough to know that we employees are always targets and our congressional representatives think nothing about how we survive. . . .”

An anonymous commenter offered tips on how feds can prepare for the aftermath of the election, regardless of who takes the reins.

“There's going to be less money to go around no matter which party is in power," that reader noted. "With a new federal spending scandal in the news every week, you are rightly in the cross hairs. My advice: Sharpen up your skills and your resume.”

Another anonymous commenter questioned why Congress doesn’t beef up its efforts to find a solution to share the burden more fairly.

“Why can't Congress put on their big-kid pants, work together, and end the unnecessary tax breaks to oil and gas companies, subsidies and cut foreign aid?” that reader asked. “Seems to me that Congress is the problem by not doing anything to get the country out of this mess we are in.”

Those opposing the extended pay freeze expressed a wish that Obama somehow wouldn’t realize it.

“[M]y hope is that the president will not follow through on such a detrimental action to federal workers,” wrote one reader. “He may not be able to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans - but that in no way means that federal civilian workers should continue to bear the brunt of the deficit.”

But at least one reader saw the news of the extension not as the worst thing that could happen: “A temporary freeze is better than a job loss,” said an anonymous reader. “Many American families are still struggling to find decent employment.”

Posted by Camille Tuutti on Aug 27, 2012 at 12:19 PM6 comments

Dumb mistakes job applicants make

With unemployment rates spiking and a cut-throat job market, how do you stand out among the masses and impress a hiring manager? For starters, you don’t list “to make dough” as an objective on your resume.

CareerBuilder asked nearly 2,300 hiring managers around the nation to share examples of resume dos and don’ts. Although these were employers in the private sector, those seeking a job in government could learn a lesson or two about avoiding common pitfalls. Hiring managers in both sectors will be impressed -- or provoked to gales of laughter -- by many of the same things. For example, some lessons in how not to do it:

  • Candidate called himself a genius and invited the hiring manager to interview him at his apartment.
  • Candidate applying for a management job listed “gator hunting” as a skill.
  • Candidate specified her resume was set up to be sung to the tune of “The Brady Bunch.”
  • Candidate listed “to make dough” as the objective on the resume.
  • Candidate applying for an accounting job said he was “deetail-oriented” (yes, spelled like that), and misspelled the company name.

On the other hand, here are some creative ideas that worked -- in the private sector. Is the government still too rules-bound to allow this kind of freedom?

  • Candidate made his resume in the form of a Rubik's Cube, where tiles had to be pushed around to align the resume. He was hired.
  • Candidate who had been a stay-at-home mom listed her skills as nursing, housekeeping, chef, teacher, bio-hazard cleanup, fight referee, taxi driver, secretary, tailor, personal shopping assistant and therapist. She was hired.
  • Candidate created a marketing brochure promoting herself as the best candidate and was hired.
  • Candidate listed accomplishments and lessons learned from each position, giving examples of good customer service he provided as well as situations he wished he would have handled differently. He was hired.
  • Candidate made his resume to look like Google search results for the "perfect candidate." Candidate ultimately wasn’t hired, but was considered.

When asked about dealbreakers that would make them automatically dismiss a candidate from consideration, hiring managers included these top 5:

  • Resumes with typographical errors – 61 percent
  • Resumes that extensively copied wording from the job posting – 41 percent
  • Resumes with an inappropriate email address – 35 percent
  • Resumes without a list of skills – 30 percent
  • Resumes that are more than two pages long – 22 percent

Posted by Camille Tuutti on Jul 27, 2012 at 12:19 PM3 comments

Why simple language is a complex challenge

Keeping writing simple is anything but in the federal government. A story I wrote yesterday underscored how agencies are struggling to communicate clearly despite a mandate that requires them to avoid complicated language.

The plain-writing advocate Center for Plain Language ranked 12 federal agencies on their compliance with the requirements of the Plain Writing Act. Each agency was given two scores. The first considers whether an agency uses plain language in its documents, has crafted a plain-writing adoption plan and educated employees in plain language, among other aspects. The second grade represents how well an agency followed the spirit of the mandate.

The Veterans Affairs Department ranked worst, with two solid F’s in both scores. Its only saving grace was naming a plain-writing official. But that’s “all they have done. . . . There is no website, apparently no plan or compliance report,” the report card said.

Why is simple writing so hard? I asked Annetta Cheek, board chair at the Center for Plain Language, to share some terrible – and terrific – examples of government writing. Cheek, who previously served as plain language coordinator at the Federal Aviation Administration, also gave some tips on how to avoid the mess that's bureaucratese. 

Who's the worst offender of complex language? Government? Industry? Academia?

They all have some terrible writing. For example, it’s hard to find something worse than the user agreement from RIM (BlackBerry). But I would have to pick government, because they have the highest level of responsibility to the public. So it’s not so much that they are worse than industry or academia, but that they have a greater responsibility to be clear.

How can managers best implement the Plain Writing Act?

Get training for their staff and take the training themselves so they know what to look for. Support the staffs’ efforts to write in plain language. Have clarity of communication an element in performance reports. Be a good model of plain language writing for their staff.

What are some challenges of the act when it comes to adoption in federal agencies?

The culture of bureaucracy, where there is little thought to the needs of the intended audience. Rather, writers in bureaucracies write the way they think their organization, managers, and attorneys expect them to. And a big challenge – training people to write clearly.

What are some good examples of plain writing?

See any of our ClearMark winners. Here’s some I particularly like:

From the American Bar Association, believe it or not, an excellent pamphlet on naming someone to be your legal representative regarding your health care

From the government, a website, A very well-done site, well written, well organized, good navigation. They did a lot of testing during development.

Last year’s top ClearMark winner from IRS – a rewritten form about child care tax credit. Compare the earlier version to the new version

From SunLife, an entire campaign trying to educate customers about the costs of health care.

How about complex writing?

See also some other WonderMark winners:

A message to Defense Department employees about their pay system.

A merchant agreement from a major regional bank.

A notice from Fairfax County to people getting divorced (don’t get divorced in Fairfax County, obviously!)

You can find lots by poking around on government websites. I was just looking at HUD’s website and found this report on energy savings. A report guaranteed not to be read.

And finally, I just had to include this, probably my all-time favorite WonderMark, although there aren’t many words. I’ve looked at it many times and it still makes me laugh. What were they thinking?

Why do people use complex writing?

  • They think it’s a requirement of their organization.
  • They are just updating old models, not creating new documents, and the old models are awful.
  • They think it makes them look knowledgeable.
  • They can’t write any other way. Writing clearly is much harder work than writing in your usual bureaucratic manner.
  • They are not thinking of the intended reader. Instead, they are thinking about their manager, the lawyer that has to approve the document, the technical person at the next desk.

What are some guidelines to simple, concise writing?

There are lots, but if I had to pick just a few, I’d say:

  • Strongly prefer active voice
  • Keep your sentences reasonably short
  • Keep subject, verb and object together – don’t stick other stuff in between
  • Omit anything your reader doesn’t really need
  • Use pronouns
  • See the Federal Plain Language guidelines for lots more

Posted by Camille Tuutti on Jul 25, 2012 at 12:19 PM2 comments

Filmmakers win over feds’ hearts

How do you show your appreciation for Uncle Sam amid anti-government sentiments? Why not make a documentary to highlight all the good stuff agencies do? That’s exactly what Seattle, Wash.--based filmmakers Flying Ninja Story Collective decided to do, and in the process they won over citizens with their “We *heart* Government” project.

The Flying Ninja Story Collective consists of four independent artists: graphic designer Jenna Abts, film editor Dina Guttmann, writer Amanda Vail, and film producer/director Cassandra Soden, who work together to create multimedia projects. To foot some of the expenses of what they dubbed their “love odes” to the government, the group members turned to, a website for funding creative projects. Not only did the collective get the attention of more than 100 backers but it exceeded its fundraising goal of $2,500.

Currently in pre-production, “We *heart* Government” consists of three short documentaries, each focusing on a different federal agency. The U.S. Postal Service and the Veterans Affairs Department were picked as the first two subjects, and a little crowdsourcing helped add the National Park Service to the roster of stars.

Here, Amanda Vail, the group’s writer, discusses how the “We *heart* Government” initiative was born and what’s next for the artists.

What has been the main objective of the project?

Our main objective is to shine a light on some neglected or oft-maligned government agencies that we feel still provide invaluable services to our nation. We're not arguing that the agencies are perfect, and in some cases they could certainly use some improvement. What we are arguing is that they are still relevant, valued, and that they are part of our American identity.

Was it a hard sell to do something that would take a positive spin on the government?

Yes and no. There were some even within our circle of family and friends who initially thought that the project must be facetious, and we did receive some very negative comments from some individuals who appeared to be part of a fringe anarchist network. However, the amount of support we got far outweighed the negative or dubious responses. Many people were intrigued and excited by the prospect of some short films on this subject. We got over 100 supporters on Kickstarter and exceeded our initial goal; best, we got some great comments on various government agencies. People can be truly passionate about the agencies they love. Our supporters voted for their favorite agencies (one vote per supporter), and in the end over 40 agencies received votes.

What has the response been from pledgers? Have you heard from any government officials or agencies?

Pledgers have been enthusiastic and supportive. We've received correspondence from a few asking how the project is going, and we have posted an update to Kickstarter to let them know our progress so far. We haven't received any independent communication from government officials or agencies yet; we are just beginning to contact the relevant press offices.

What are the next steps? Any other projects focused on the government in the works?

Well, first we have to get through this one! Our intention is to spend the month of August shooting the footage for these three documentaries, and then we'll be working on editing and post-production. After that, we'll spend some time investigating and submitting to film festivals. As for future projects, who knows? We'll have to see where our curiosity and interests take us. 

Posted by Camille Tuutti on Jul 11, 2012 at 12:19 PM1 comments

When telework fails

Despite the cure-all telework has been touted as, it is not much use in some emergencies, including the most recent storm-induced power outage that affected more than a million homes in the Washington area.

While some feds had the option to take unscheduled telework, many were unable to do any work at home and instead headed to the office. “Of course telework isn't a very effective option when you have no power (and your office, which does, looks like the best option for keeping cool),” one reader commented.

Another reader said while telework was useful in the other weather emergencies such as blizzards, it wasn't helpful this time.

“I personally was very happy to come to my air-conditioned office on Monday since my home was still without electricity and was 88 degrees inside!” that reader said.

If the power outage wasn’t reason enough not to work from home, another reader lamented the lack of adequate continuity-of-operations planning: “Ha! Like I'm gonna drag a 10+ pound boat anchor masquerading as a government-issued laptop home every single night on the off chance of a disaster requiring me to telework. COOP at my agency is a joke. If you really want me to be able to telework, secure your data, and provide me with VPN access from the personal device(s) of my choice.”

Some readers pointed out that sometimes telework just isn’t productive, especially when you're employer is the Defense Department or the intelligence community. “As long as we cannot access government systems from home, it's just not realistic," wrote one reader. "And, frankly, from a cybersecurity standpoint, it's completely unwise to allow that type of connectivity outside the four walls of an agency.”

Reader Scott gave some basic tips on how to proceed if you can’t telework from home due to a power outage"

First: Proceed to the physical building to do your job. If that building doesn't have power (call or text first), then go to a remote telework center if your organization has one.

Second: If there is none, try a friend’s house, local coffee shop, restaurant, bookstore or any other nearby location with free wi-fi and power, he suggested.

And finally, “if everyone is completely without power, then perhaps you might actually have to suck it up and take the unscheduled leave,” Scott wrote. “This process is not that difficult, and I don't see why it's so hard for people to grasp the concept of being able to do your job (or at least a good portion of it) from any location.”

It may not be difficult in theory but a challenge in reality, commented another reader. 

“It's remarkable how hard it is to make this work in our government organizations: 300,000+ employee commercial organizations like HP have no trouble making employees productive at home, on the road, etc.,” commented Dan Barahona. ”We should expect no less from our government agencies. It's one more argument to make mobility/[bring your own device] a standard operating practice."

Posted by Camille Tuutti on Jul 09, 2012 at 12:19 PM1 comments

Readers speak out: The great federal pay debate

The question Can you really trust claims about federal pay? was posed last week in a story about the complexities in determining which sector earns the most. The consensus among the panelists cited in the article was that compensation data could differ dramatically considering which methodology was used.

Case in point: The Federal Salary Council’s research had determined that federal employees on average make between 30 and 40 percent less than employees in the private sector. In contrast, the Congressional Budget Office's number pointed to feds making roughly 2 percent more than employees in private industry.

These discrepancies stirred up a debate among readers, some of whom agreed with the Federal Salary Council’s estimate.

“Federal employees have never been on par with the private sector as far as pay and has always been lower,” wrote one reader. “A person doing my job as a government contractor gets paid two times more for the same work.”

A reader posting under the name Spacedude said even with tens of years of experience, he was still making less than his private sector colleagues. “I am near the upper end of the government pay scale and after several decades being a fed employee, I can truthfully say my counterparts in industry earn more,” he commented.

Other readers pointed out federal employees may earn less but oftentimes have much better benefits packages compared to their industry colleagues. Reader Agnes, who said she spent 15 years in industry, recently joined the government and noted the public sector “has good benefits long term, good vacation time if accumulated.”

The downside, however, was that even with a master's degree and some IT professional certifications she said she still took a salary cut in the government.

Reader Paul acknowledged he had great benefits working for the government, but his move to the public sector came at a higher price than he had anticipated than just the pay cut he took.

 “With all the added benefits, I figure I came out slightly ahead but realized later that I also gave up much chance for career progression. . . Now that I'm a fed, I'm trapped in one job, in one area, and have no flexibility and no promotion options,” he wrote. “I'm having to look at getting a third degree just to hope I can see some movement.”

As is typical of these type of stories, a few readers questioned the validity of the research methods used. "I have to wonder," wrote one reader, "given who they work for, how reliable, accurate and unbiased are the CBO's figures?"

A fellow reader responded, not without taking a slight jab at the media: "CBO and GAO are widely considered credible. It is a function of how as an organization they are designed, their purpose and audience. The special agenda folks like Heritage and Cato typically push a narrow agenda. The media likes their stuff because it is easy to believe the worst."

Posted by Camille Tuutti on Jun 18, 2012 at 12:19 PM12 comments