Employees skeptical of managers' ability to cut deadwood

Wednesday - 1/30/2013, 7:20pm EST

Federal employees are skeptical their managers are making effective decisions about the federal workforce, according to a new report from the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Just 24 percent of the employees agreed that their agencies properly addressed poor performers, while 29 percent of respondents indicated their organizations eliminated unnecessary programs and positions, according to the survey of 42,000 feds from 24 agencies and departments.

Higher percentages of employees said their agencies retained valuable employees and provided necessary training — 41 percent and 60 percent, respectively. However, MSPB said those areas also remain challenges.

MSPB Chairwoman Susan Tsui Grundmann said the report examines the issue of good stewardship and of using federal resources and the workforce effectively and in the public interest.

And given expected tighter budgets, the gaps uncovered in the survey are only likely to widen if unaddressed, she said.

"In the current environment, it is more important than ever for federal agencies and federal leaders to demonstrate that they are good stewards of the resources entrusted to them — including the federal workforce," Grundmann said in the preface to the report.

MSPB: Include employees in decisionmaking

The report is clear-eyed about the challenges federal managers face.

"There are limits to what any individual employee can do to resolve problems such as overlapping missions, conflicting objectives and insufficient resources," the report stated. "That does not, however, absolve federal leaders of their responsibility to provide the clearest possible direction, make difficult decisions, and communicate important if unpalatable truths."

If the current economic climate continues, many of those hard truths will revolve around how best to allocate resources, including phasing out ineffective or unnecessary positions.

But, according to the survey, that is one of the areas where employees reported the lowest positive perceptions of their bosses.

"This may be a question of insufficient action by agency management, or a lack of employee understanding about management decisions and their rationale," the report stated. "In either case, if cuts are required over the next few years, it will be vital that management and employees work together on absorbing the pain with as little damage to the organization as possible."

Going forward, MSPB recommended managers and supervisors include employees in the decision-making process when it comes to making program cuts and solicit feedback from employees to boost productivity and efficiency.

"Be prepared to make the tough calls on which important programs may need to be trimmed or cut in order to provide even more crucial priorities with the necessary resources," MSPB advised in its recommendations to agencies. "Involve the workforce in efforts to locate potential methods to improve efficiencies and keep employees informed about what is being done and why it is being done."

In fact, according the survey, cutting unnecessary functions or positions — if they are truly deadwood — has beneficial effects on employee attitudes and perceptions.

Employees who reported that their agencies cut programs were more engaged overall and were more likely to say they intended to stay with the organization.

MSPB also recommended agencies recommit to workforce training in order to retain more high performers.

"The federal workforce has become a knowledge workforce, with a majority of workers employed in complex, fast-changing fields such as information technology, medicine, security and law enforcement and engineering," the report said. "Unfortunately, many employees indicate that they have not received adequate training for their current jobs, let alone opportunities for growth and development."

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