Why it’s so difficult to really change government

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For all of the talk of innovation and change in government — much of it championed by the influx of Silicon Valley techies who kneel at the altar of computer code — the reality is real change in government is hard. In fact, the government needs to wake up to the fact that it can’t code its way to lasting change.

The House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on Government Operations got that wake-up call last week when it explored the results of the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, conducted by the Office of Personnel Management. Sure there was plenty of talk of federal employees being overworked, underpaid, publicly criticized by their elected officials and enduring the constant threat of furloughs. But the real eye-opener came from one of the smallest independent agencies in the federal government.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, known simply as the Chemical Safety Board, received an index score of just 33.7 out of 100 in the latest FEVS survey — the lowest morale and satisfaction rating of all 10 of the very small agencies in government. The interesting thing about the CSB, however, is its size; it’s just 40 employees strong — about the size of a single Army or Marine Corps platoon. Put the entire organization in one room, and you could easily look each employee in the eye.

But it was the agency’s response to being rated one of the worst places to work in the federal government that is truly indicative of why the pace of change in government can be so mind-numbingly slow.

“We have a work improvement committee in place where we’ve detailed six major topics that we’re working on,” said Manuel Ehrlich, a CSB board member. “We’re going to put metrics in place relative to them. Those things take time. I’ve been working on it with the committee and they’ve been working on it for about a year now,” he said.

And it gets worse. The CSB not only spent the better part of a year trying to figure out how to improve the morale of 40 employees, but it also felt it was necessary to hire a human resources consulting firm to investigate the sources of discontent among those employees. The firm reported significant “frustration with top leadership” among employees, who also said board members discouraged dissenting opinions.

Hiring a consultant to help with workforce satisfaction isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in this case, the CSB found so many problems with the way the company conducted the study that it turned the matter over to the inspector general for review.

“I think the data was clearly taken. I don’t have a whole lot of confidence in it right now [and] I have not reviewed it in absolute detail,” said Ehrlich, who’s only been a CSB board member since January. “I want to go down and talk to the people myself. And I want to find out what’s really on their mind.”

Ehrlich’s testimony speaks volumes about how difficult it is for the government to affect culture change. If an organization of only 40 people has to form a committee and hire a consulting firm to investigate morale and employee satisfaction issues, and if after a year it doesn’t yet have specific answers to specific problems, what does that say of the government’s largest bureaucracies with tens of thousands of employees?

What are the chances that the federal government is addressing major cultural roadblocks in meaningful ways when even its smallest organizations can’t affect change without forming a committee, hiring a consultant and taking years to study the problems?

Real challenges

Anybody who proclaims to be interested in changing government should be concerned about the example of the CSB. After all, employee engagement is a major problem for the federal government and has been for many years.

Last year’s FEVS, for example, showed that job satisfaction among federal employees was at its lowest since the survey began in 2003. Some agencies, like NASA, did receive very positive scores. But as lawmakers pointed out last week, the real lesson from the survey is that the institution of government is losing its center.

“The problem isn’t just in federal agency management. I do think the Congress has to take responsibility for some of this. We’re not bystanders or observers,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. “Back home, beating up on nameless bureaucrats can help you [politically]. Defending the federal employee is of low political yield in many districts,” Connolly said. “We need to be speaking in respectful tones about our workforce. We need to be motivating and incentivizing them.”

Connolly made another important point about the latest results of the FEVS: The vast majority of federal employees are dedicated to doing whatever it takes to accomplish the missions they’ve been given and are constantly striving to do their jobs better. But in those agencies where employees find themselves battling poor leadership, the threat of government shutdowns and dwindling resources, dedication only lasts so long.

“The federal government is clearly going in the wrong direction in terms of supporting its people,” Connolly said. Since 2010, the federal workforce has endured a three-year pay freeze, $140 billion of pay and benefit cuts, sequestration, hiring freezes, reductions in performance awards and training budgets, and a 16-day government shutdown. “We might as well put up the sign, ‘the flogging will continue until morale improves,'” Connolly said.

The CSB’s Ehrlich said morale could be improved if the agency was able to hire more investigators. “Right now we have only 20 to cover the entire country. This has caused more than a few morale problems.”

Holding leaders accountable

The Obama administration has said it wants to improve the employee engagement index, or survey response rate, from 63 percent to 67 percent by the 2016 FEVS. In addition, as part of their annual performance plans and appraisals, each member of the Senior Executive Service will be responsible for improving employee engagement within their organization and for creating inclusive work environments.

“We’re going to put real pressure on those who don’t perform,” said subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., pointing out that 80 percent of the CSB’s employees responded to last year’s FEVS — a very high engagement rate compared to other agencies. “And yet that incredible response rate gave [CSB] an F — a failing grade,” Meadows said. “Eighty percent of 40 people is a significant number and that’s very troubling to me because it should be very easy to address their concerns.”

Agency leadership is the most important factor in affecting change in government. And agencies are not created equal when it comes to leadership. While Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson personally delivered a letter to the committee regarding his agency’s response to the results of the FEVS, the executive director of the CSB chose to send the newest board member to testify on issues dating back years before his arrival at the agency.

The CSB example is an important one for government because it provides one of the best data sets available on employee engagement and the issues studied by the FEVS.

But this one tiny agency’s inability to address workforce issues in a timely, effective manner should be a wake-up call to anybody who thinks change in government is as easy as embracing innovation. Government and Silicon Valley are still two very different places.

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