Agency heads finding light at end of fed-bashing tunnel

Wednesday - 5/9/2012, 5:20am EDT

Public Service Recognition Week

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Pay freezes, early retirement offerings and a constant barrage of bills trying to reduce health and retirement benefits have continually battered federal employees over the last three years. Add to that scandals at the General Services Administration and the Secret Service, morale of current employees and the likelihood of the best and brightest willing to join the government has dimmed.

But what some would call a hostile or unhealthy environment is actually giving agencies an opportunity to make small but substantive improvements to their personnel practices.

Secretary Janet Napolitano said the Homeland Security Department formed a higher education engagement group, led by the president of the University of Maryland, to recruit new employees and give them a career roadmap.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius said the number of people joining the National Health Service Corps has tripled over the last few years.

Kathleen Sebelius, secretary, Department of Health and Human Services

Even at the recently much-maligned GSA, acting administrator Dan Tangherlini said he hasn't seen a huge drop off in the quality of candidates applying for jobs.

"The real challenge for leaders is how to make people proud of what they do, make them understand how important it is and reinforce that," Sebelius said, during a town hall meeting Tuesday in Washington sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service in recognition of Public Service Recognition Week. "Trying to recruit and retain the best possible workforce is tough, and it's especially so when people are working a gazillion hours a day, paid well-below market value and trashed day-in and day-out in the news media and on the Hill and told that they are incompetent and not doing a good job."

Thanks to public servants

Public Service Recognition Week is one of several ways non-government organizations, some lawmakers and others say "thank you" to federal, state and local government employees.

Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership, said this is one week of the year when federal employees are honored and recognized for their work.

"We will frankly not get what we want out of government if all we do is tear it down and we fail to recognize the good things it does," he said. "Government is going to need to change, there is no doubt about that. It will have to adapt to the new constraints we face. We will not succeed in getting the government we want if we treat our federal employees like an unnecessary cost instead of a national asset."

Stier added to get the federal workforce of the 21st century, leadership is the most important element needed.

Max Stier, president and CEO, Partnership for Public Service

Additionally with retirement numbers up 25 percent across agencies, Stier and others say agencies need to do more to solidify their workforce.

"We shouldn't be losing these people like an on-and-off switch," Stier said. "It's not good for them. It's not good for the American people. We do fundamentally see a much greater degree of focus than ever before."

DHS wants potential retirees to stay on part-time

Napolitano said DHS is considering how to give feds who want to retire a way to remain on part-time for a little while.

"We know we've hit a big retirement bubble," she said. "We are working with the Office of Personnel Management to see what our options are and what can we do to keep talent alive and bring in new talent that is properly mentored."

The Senate recently passed an amendment to the Surface Transportation bill that would let employees eligible for retirement continue working part-time while collecting a corresponding percentage of their retirement annuity. As a way to preserve agency knowledge, retirees taking advantage of the system would also have to spend at least 20 percent of their time mentoring new hires.

The House version of the bill doesn't include the same provision yet.

Sebelius said HHS, like all agencies, is looking for ways to ensure it keeps as much institutional knowledge as possible.

But beyond recruitment, retention and knowledge management, agencies need to take care of the federal employees who aren't new or about to retire.

Navy veteran Don Hagerling said the military can be a model for doing little things to recognize workers.

Small kinds of recognition are important too

Hagerling, the DHS director of information security policy, focused on operations and security architecture, said something as simple and straightforward as challenge coins can go a long way.

"Morale is a hard thing to deal with," he said. "Challenge coins really create a sense of identity. It's a very effective way to recognize people."

He said agencies also could take a local news approach to acknowledge employees who have done outstanding work. Along with press releases to local media, Hagerling said communicating through Twitter, Facebook and other social media also could be effective.

Ray LaHood, the Transportation Department secretary, said Public Service Recognition Week is about good public service and people who work hard.

"There will be a hearing on Capitol Hill today [Tuesday] about the Transportation Security Administration because a few members of Congress are irritated about it, but think about the good work that has gone on for more than 10 years by TSA federal employees who are well trained and make sure people don't board trains to hurt one another," LaHood said. "There are a lot of those stories. Hopefully, some of them will come out of this hearing rather than just trashing an organization that's actually protected people who have been flying for a decade since 9/11. Not one plane has been brought down by a terrorist. I think we'd all like to have a good track record like that. I think that is what we are celebrating this week."

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