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Tough Times for Federal Workers

As Congress continues to debate the size of the federal workforce -- as well as employee benefits -- workers have contended with pay freezes and ongoing uncertainty. On the positive side of this Year in Review, a new performance-management framework has been unveiled, and diversity and inclusion plans were released.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011
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The 2011 Federal Viewpoint Survey showed federal employees remained committed to their jobs and inspired by their agency's mission. But there were signs that congressional partisanship and attacks on pay and benefits were beginning to impact morale.

That should come as no surprise considering 2011 was marked by a pay freeze, several near government shutdowns, and constant legislative proposals to reduce the size of the federal workforce.

The usual annual appropriations battles were upstaged this year by a bitter battle over whether the debt ceiling should be raised. An 11th-hour agreement mandated nearly $1 trillion in budget cuts over 10 years and created a "super committee" to identify another $1.5 trillion in savings over the same period.

Because the committee failed to reach any kind of agreement, across-the-board cuts are scheduled to take effect in 2013 as outlined in the Budget Control Act -- although experts agree such cuts will be detrimental to government effectiveness. They expect Congress to repeal them.

Regardless of how that all plays out, one thing is certain -- agencies are going to be faced with unprecedented budget cuts, which could lead to workforce reductions.

The Office of Management and Budget has already told agencies that their FY 2013 budget requests have to be cut at least 5 percent -- with recommendations to cut 10 percent -- below FY 2010 and 2011 levels.

And the Office of Personnel Management has already updated its guidance on furloughs and agency restructuring to help agencies cope, acknowledging that the federal government is "experiencing restructuring and downsizing in an increasing number of agencies."

The fact that the super committee failed to reach agreement means there are no concrete proposals on the table to change federal pay and benefits. The Obama administration has suggested raising employee contributions toward retirement costs by a total of 1.2 percent over three years beginning in 2013, but that is minor to much larger changes suggested by GOP members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

And while the Senate recently shot down legislation (S. 1931) that would have extended a temporary payroll tax cut and paid for it, in part, by extending the current pay freeze and reducing the federal workforce by 10 percent, a number of other proposals are still being floated around.

The latest efforts seem to adopt most of the recommendations of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform's deficit reduction plan. The NCFRR's proposal would increase federal employee retirement contributions, transform the Federal Employees Health Benefits program into a defined-contribution premium support plan, and extend the current pay freeze by at least a year.

Another sign of the times was that OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy issued a long-awaited final policy letter, which provides guidance to federal agencies on inherently governmental and critical functions.

The policy letter continues to use the statutory definition established under the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act and explains what agencies must do when work is "closely associated" with inherently governmental functions.

In a key change from an earlier draft, the final version "expressly acknowledges that functions closely associated with inherently governmental functions and critical functions are often performed by both federal employees and contractors."

The policy letter also states that "reliance on contractors is not, by itself, a cause for concern," as long as federal officials adequately manage contractor performance, and notes that work should not be reserved for federal employees.

While it is too early to tell exactly what will happen, 2012 will likely be another tough year.

The Highlights

On the brighter side, progress was made throughout 2011 to improve federal performance management, diversity, and inclusion, and create pathways for students to enter the federal workforce.

Performance Management

The National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations completed work on a new framework designed to help agencies improve performance management regardless of what type of appraisal system they use.

The framework, called GEAR -- for Goals, Engagement, Accountability and Results -- focuses on the following five key components:

 
* Articulate a high performance culture.

 
* Align employee performance management with organizational performance management.  

* Implement accountability at all levels.

 
* Create a culture of engagement.

 
* Improve the assessment, selection, development, and training of supervisors.

OPM also made progress in developing standardized policies and tools to help unify all senior executives across the government, including a new SES onboarding framework, which was released in September. Work on a new SES performance-management system is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

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Diversity and Inclusion

OPM also released the Governmentwide Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan and accompanying implementation guidance required under Executive Order 13583.

The plan establishes three goals and outlines specific action steps for each:

 
* Workforce diversity, which requires all federal agencies to "recruit from a diverse, qualified group of potential applicants to secure a high-performing workforce drawn from all segments of American society."

 
* Workplace inclusion, which requires all federal agencies to "cultivate a culture that encourages collaboration, flexibility, and fairness to enable individuals to contribute to their full potential and further retention."

 
* Sustainability, which requires all federal agencies to "develop structures and strategies to equip leaders with the ability to manage diversity, be accountable, measure results, refine approaches on the basis of such data, and institutionalize a culture of inclusion."

Student Hiring

OPM is currently finalizing regulations to implement the new student Pathways Program, which will create a new Schedule D excepted service hiring authority and include:

 
* The Internship Program for current students, which will replace the Student Educational Employment Program.

 
* The Recent Graduates Program, which will provide opportunities for individuals who have recently graduated or obtained a certificate from qualifying education institutions to participate in a two-year career development program.

 
* The Presidential Management Fellows Program, which will become more student-friendly by aligning it with academic calendars and including individuals who have received a qualifying advanced degree within the last two years.

OPM Director John Berry recently told cyber FEDSĀ® that he wants the new Pathways Programs up and running in time to allow 2012 graduates to benefit.

Agencies also made progress on hiring in general, with many dramatically reducing their hiring time frames, although some experts question whether the quality of hires was being sacrificed.  

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