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Federal Coach: Susan Grundmann on protecting merit systems in the federal government

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

Susan Tsui Grundmann is the chairman of the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), an independent, quasi-judicial agency that protects the federal merit systems and promotes governmentwide merit system principles. Grundmann previously served as general counsel to the National Federation of Federal Employees, a union which represents 100,000 federal workers nationwide.

How difficult was it to transition from representing federal workers to being an arbiter between employees and managers?

It was quite easy because as an advocate, you’re required not only to know the law and the facts of your case, but to be able address the strengths and weaknesses in a hearing setting. As an adjudicator, you are pretty much doing the same thing, which is surveying strengths and weaknesses within the boundaries of the law and the rules.

I was lucky to come from a federal law employment background, having a fundamental knowledge of the types of issues that crop up. When I first got here, my fellow board members and I engaged in outreach with our stakeholders from all different walks of life—agency representatives, private attorneys, union leaders, representatives of management, the affinity groups and the good government groups—and gained some understanding of how they viewed the MSPB. The purpose was to see what we were doing well and maybe what things we could do better. Outreach to stakeholders is ongoing and has now become an element of our strategic plan.

MSPB has two core functions, adjudication and conducting studies of the civil service. Does that ever represent a conflict for you?

It’s actually complimentary. But it can be challenging at times. The board must remain neutral. However, the study function has the responsibility to inform Congress, the president and our stakeholders of the health and well-being of the civil service system. What's interesting is that we haven't actually seen any conflict in these two roles in our more than thirty years of history. The studies are also significant because they present a series of best practices or lessons learned, which if ignored could result in litigation.

What’s your opinion about the widely held belief that it’s impossible to remove a federal employee?

Yes, the perception exists and it saddens me to hear it. There really aren’t that many poor performers in government, so perception is not reality. Both the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and MSPB have found that poor performance is not as widespread as people think. Our studies and OPM studies find that approximately 4 percent to 6 percent of federal employees are poor performers.

The other aspect is privacy. It’s important to recognize that much of what happens to an employee is protected, and workers may not always be aware what steps management is taking to address poor performers that they can’t talk about publicly. The critical issue is how agencies are dealing with performance management and training supervisors on when and how to address performance issues. They should articulate standards and expectations, objectively measuring and holding people accountable for their performance, and communicating and providing frequent feedback when the employee is not performing.

What do you believe are critical factors in building a high-performing workforce?

In 2008, we did a study on the power of federal employee engagement. The definition of this is a heightened connection between employees, their organizations, their work and the people they work for and with. We found that when employees are engaged in the mission, the goals and the policy, the agency derives positive, measurable results— employees use less sick leave, people come back to work quickly from injury—in other words, more productive time. Why? Because employees like being at work. They’re committed to their work.

What has helped shape your leadership views?

I’d have to say the experiences I had working with a coalition of organizations—professional management, executive, labor and affinity groups. We were all working to address the issues raised by the Defense Department’s national personnel system. Everybody had their own interests based on their own particular constituency, but they were able to put aside their differences for a common purpose. It was a collaborative and participatory event. Tasks were assigned to each member. People volunteered and they gave up their time without complaining. They were committed to a certain result. Everything was done out in the open. We debated, we argued, we considered and we agreed on a course of action and language.

That’s the kind of the collaborative environment that has emerged at MSPB. We’ve called on our stakeholders and the public to comment on significant legal issues and how they think they should be interpreted. We resurrected our practice of oral argument with the public and stakeholders participating. We’ve invited stakeholders to comment on our suggested research agenda for the next three to five years and to suggest other studies, which we have adopted.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Sep 08, 2011 at 12:12 PM


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