The 'New Normal' and Employee Engagement

While the federal pay freeze, sequestration and last year's shutdown have certainly taken their toll on federal employees' morale and engagement, there is still cause for optimism.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014
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The "new normal" of tight budgets will require innovative human resources practices across the federal government to recruit and retain top talent.

That was the message of Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, during a recent hearing by the Senate federal workforce subcommittee on how to create a more effective and efficient government.

Top federal HR leaders and representatives from employee organizations told subcommittee members that the pay freeze, sequestration, and last year's shutdown have certainly taken their toll on federal employee morale and engagement. But they also said there is cause for optimism.

Despite all the challenges, Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta said "there is still a strong interest in public service." She said the main reasons employees come to work for the government are "public service" and the "diversity of opportunity." Employees are also happy with workplace flexibilities such as telework, leave, and alternative work schedules to help them balance work and family needs.

Create a 'culture of innovation'

Representatives from agencies that have done well in Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and Best Places to Work rankings, including NASA and the Federal Labor Relations Authority, offered some tips for success.

Jeri Buchholz, NASA's chief human capital officer, said NASA utilizes a three-point strategy to engage its workforce and "create a culture of innovation":

1. Focus on connecting employees to each other and the mission every day. This comes straight from the top as NASA administrator Charlie Bolden visits employees to talk about their work and life, and also reviews the FEVS results personally so he can understand how all of NASA's components are doing.
2. Ensure first-line supervisors appreciate the importance of developing innovative employees.
3. Recognize and reward innovative performance by moving past traditional monetary recognition. Some of the awards NASA has developed include an innovation champion award and a "fail fast, learn smart" award, Buchholz said. NASA also created an "innovation coin" that frontline supervisors can give to employees for on-the-spot recognition of innovative work.

FLRA Chairwoman Carol Waller Pope discussed efforts at her agency that resulted in an unprecedented 250 percent improvement in employee satisfaction between 2008 and 2010. In 2013, the FLRA was No. 8 for small agencies in the Best Places to Work rankings, up from dead last in 2008.

"The key, I think, is that FLRA employees and leadership undertook sincere, sustained efforts to focus on the core values of transparency and accountability," Pope said. "And we focused on mission accomplishment."

Pope held town hall meetings, committed "scarce resources" to employee training and development, and had employees offer their ideas to improve agency performance.

"These were not pro forma efforts," she said. "They were real and substantive."

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, said an entire overhaul is needed to the way the federal government hires, pays, and manages its employees. But in the meantime, he recommended five steps PPS feels would make an immediate difference:

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1. Reform direct hire authority by changing the standard for use from a shortage of minimally qualified candidates to a shortage of highly qualified candidates.
2. Allow agencies to share certifications, so if one agency is hiring for a particular profession, it can share qualified candidates who were not hired with other agencies searching for similar talent.
3. Update the FEVS to ensure it is done annually and the results are shared more quickly with agencies. Stier also said data by occupation would be useful.
4. Hold leaders accountable in their performance plans for taking steps to improve employee satisfaction.
5. Promote more mobility in the Senior Executive Service.

Stier admitted, however, that these changes would generally require legislative fixes.

Don't forget about pay

Both National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley and American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox said Congress must act to end the sequester and ensure adequate resources for personnel and training.

According to AFGE, the three-year pay freeze cut the "purchasing power of a federal paycheck by 7 percent while increases in mandatory retirement contributions for new employees have cut their purchasing power by an additional 2.3 to 3.6 percent."

Subcommittee Chair Jon Tester, D-Mont., said what it comes down to is that federal employees "must be able to make a living at their job and have an opportunity to grow and feel valued."

Julie Davidson is cyberFEDS® editorial director.

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