Workforce

Agencies still struggle with workforce stewardship

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A new Merit Systems Protection Board survey finds that many leaders fail to wisely manage limited resources.

Most federal employees believe their agencies maintain high standards of conduct and concern for the public interest, but leaders often fall short when it comes to decisions on how to most effectively use the workforce, according to a report by the Merit Systems Protection Board.

The newly released "Managing Public Employees in the Public Interest: Employee Perspectives on Merit Principles in Federal Workplaces" is based on responses to a recent MSPB survey of more than 42,000 federal employees. It focuses on how agencies manage resources and federal employees to meet agency missions and serve the public.

Many of the surveyed employees believe agency leaders need to improve their decision-making and communication skills with regard to agency priorities and invest accordingly to sustain a high-performing knowledge workforce. Stewardship was identified as needing more improvement in four areas in particular: eliminating unnecessary functions and positions, effectively addressing poor performance, retaining the best employees, and providing necessary training.

"Employees are being asked to make personal and professional sacrifices, and they need to feel confident that leaders are using limited resources wisely," said Susan Tsui Grundmann, MSPB's chairwoman. "That requires agency leaders to make tough choices about the programs, functions or positions that they can support. It also demands the foresight and courage to invest in the federal workforce so employees can perform at high levels and agencies can operate effectively as well as efficiently."

Although a majority of respondents said their organizations provide necessary training and resources, a large number of nonsupervisors -- ranging from 11 percent to 40 percent -- disagreed with that statement. In addition, only half of nonsupervisors said their organizations provide opportunities for growth and development.

The report cautions against cutting training for federal employees, noting that "a penny saved is not a penny earned if the saved penny is not invested wisely" and the right training could result in cost savings in the future by making employees more effective. Great leadership becomes particularly important in demanding times, said Julie Anderson, chief operating officer and managing director at Civitas Group. Leaders need to articulate a vision, set strategic priorities, make strategic choices, and oversee a process in which employees can understand and relate to the vision and priorities, she added.

"Federal leaders can inculcate a vision and strategic priorities throughout an organization by developing an agency strategic plan; translating the strategic plan into operating plans, which lay out activities, resources, budget and timeline to guide implementation of strategic goals; and aligning individual performance goals with organizational goals through performance standards and metrics," she said.

The report includes several recommendations for government leaders. Managers at all levels should be educated on their responsibilities with regard to the federal workforce under merit system principles. They should also be prepared to decide which programs need to be cut back or terminated in order to free up necessary resources. Finally, managers should not reduce employee training and career development opportunities in the interest of short-term savings but should instead focus on the agency's long-term capabilities.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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