SBA assures senator it's fixing management problems

Friday - 4/29/2011, 8:07am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The Small Business Administration is promising a senior senator it is taking eight steps to fix long-standing, and what some would say systemic, personnel management challenges.

SBA pledged to Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) in a 13-page letter that ensuring its employees do not feel disenfranchised or retaliated against is among the agency's most important tasks.

Snowe wrote to SBA administrator Karen Mills March 3 asking for changes after Federal News Radio's five-part investigative series, "Discouraged and Disrespected at SBA."

"Reports last month address multiple charges of wrong-doing, and are largely related to human resource practices," Snowe said in her letter. "Thus, I respectfully request that you aggressively work with the SBA Inspector General to formulate a plan that addresses the human resource issues in question and that you then readily implement the plan with consistent oversight of the process."

Federal News Radio's investigative series chronicled four SBA employees who allege agency management has retaliated against them for blowing the whistle on what the employees say are illegal activities, including human resources fraud and contracting fraud, happening across the agency.

SBA denied any wrongdoing and takes these allegations seriously, according to spokesman Jonathan Swain.

"[W]e have focused proactively on top-to-bottom review and improvement in our human capital functions and initiatives," SBA administrator Karen Mills wrote to Snowe in her April 8 response. "[W]e have taken numerous steps to give our employees and managers at the SBA the tools, training and support they need. This process has not been without challenges. The agency went through various transformations over the past decade, and other issues appear to have competed for attention with staffing, training, development and other critical personnel and labor issues."

Snowe, who is the ranking member of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, said Federal News Radio's series highlights the need for SBA to address potential problems that may have existed through multiple administrations with the way the agency develops employees.

"At a time of financial peril and economic uncertainty for the nation's job creators, it is imperative that all SBA personnel have clear and meaningful roles and objectives that serve the larger agency goals," Snowe wrote.

She said if employees feel disenfranchised, retaliated upon or unable to perform their functions, SBA's ability to meet its mission would suffer.

"While I appreciate that only one voice was represented throughout these reports, I know you will agree that any distraction that diverts SBA from working on behalf of small business is something we can ill-afford," Snowe wrote.

SBA has struggled with employee morale for some time. The 2010 Employee Viewpoint Survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management shows SBA received good marks in many of the categories, but fell short in many of the performance areas. For instance, 33 percent of the SBA's respondents say they are not getting the training they need, while 39 percent say they are. Additionally, almost 42 percent of the employees say raises do not depend on how well employees perform their jobs.

Mills said SBA recognizes the challenges outlined in the survey as well as those in other areas. The agency is working on them.

Swain declined a request for an interview with the administrator about her plans to improve agency human resources management.

In the letter to Snowe, Mills says SBA is taking several steps:

  • Conducting an agencywide review of all employees' meaningful roles and objectives tied to SBA's fundamental goals,

  • Conducting comprehensive training in best practices for goal-setting, employee communication and performance management,

  • Identifying and implementing targeted, meaningful training to provide better service, oversight and small business support across agency programs,

  • Engaging in mediation and resolution when there are personnel disputes. And looking for creative solutions where the disputes have been long-standing.

Additionally, Mills said SBA is working with its inspector general to address several other issues.

SBA will have a plan in place in the next 45 days to address long-standing personnel management challenges involving workforce planning, and to address the results from the Federal Viewpoint Survey.

Mills and the IG will issue a joint notice to raise awareness of reporting fraud and a notice about the procedures and protections under the whistleblower law.

Finally, the agency's fraud protection task force is working with the IG to encourage employees to identify and report suspected fraud in agency programs through new structural, reporting, tracking and coordination changes that should improve these efforts. SBA expects initial training of employees should be done by mid-May, Mills said.