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Federal Coach: Debt ceiling uncertainty for federal workers

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Once again federal employees must keep plowing ahead with their jobs as they wait for the proverbial shoe to drop.

As was the case earlier this year when the White House and Congress went to the brink before finalizing a 2011 budget, government workers are again facing great uncertainty about their work and their future amid the high-stakes political negotiations over raising the debt limit.

At this point, no one is saying what will happen to federal workers if a timely agreement is not reached on the debt limit. And when a deal is eventually struck extending the debt limit and presumably reducing the long-term deficit, how will federal pay and benefits be affected, and what impact will it have a government programs?

I’m again hearing that federal leaders are leaving their employees’ questions unaddressed, but what are you supposed to say? We’ve never had to confront a government default; and until the deal is drafted and the ink is dry, it’s unclear what it will mean for agency operations and employees.

Lest we forget, I wanted to build on some of the lessons learned from the springtime budget debates to offer concrete suggestions for communicating with your employees when information is limited.

Tell your employees what you know and don’t know. Even though you may not have much more clarity about what’s happening than what is being reported in the news, your employees believe that you do. And they may think that you’re withholding information. So it’s worth sitting down with your team or otherwise reaching out to your agency’s employees through email, an ‘all hands’ or a video message and giving them your best information.

Invite employees to share their concerns. Next, provide your employees with a forum for asking questions. Don’t let the water cooler or coffee club be the only outlet. Immediately answer any questions you can in real time, and let them know when you don’t have all of the facts or answers. You might even use some of the online innovation tools agencies use to collect great ideas from the front lines.

Answer their questions publicly as the answers emerge. After any exchange with employees when you are unable to answer specific questions, make sure you follow up when the information is available. If agency cutbacks are in store, as will likely be the case in many agencies, at least let the employees know the decision-making process that will take place even if the final outcome is unclear.

Federal leaders and employees, what are the lessons you learned from the budget debate earlier this year that should be applied to the current uncertainties for employees around the debt limit? Is anyone seeing a real case study in leadership they can highlight for our readers?

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Jul 22, 2011 at 12:12 PM


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