Many non-SES managers feeling left out of key discussions

Wednesday - 3/14/2012, 5:21am EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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Patricia Niehaus, president, Federal Managers Association

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Federal managers not in the Senior Executive Service want a more high-profile spot at the decision-making table, especially when it comes to labor-management discussions.

"From my perspective, you are missing a key piece and that is the people in this room," said a manager from the Social Security Administration Tuesday during a question and answer session with John Berry, the director of the Office of Personnel Management, at the Federal Manager's Association 74th annual National Convention and Management Training Seminar in Arlington, Va.

The manager told Berry that the SES and political appointees set the vision, but the General Schedule 12s, 13s, 14s and 15s are the ones that make the mission a reality.

"We are the boots on the ground," she said. "The executives don't know the day-to-day. They don't know the intricacies. They don't know how things work. We are being barred from participating in those councils, and I think that will end up hurting the results. The executives could agree to things that we know won't work or that need to be tweaked."

The National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations meets monthly to ensure collaboration and communication between employee unions and associations and management. Federal Manager's Association President Patricia Niehaus is member, but the rest of the council is made up mostly of union officials and political appointees.

Inside agencies, the partnerships are a bit more diverse to include more non-SES or political appointees, but Niehaus and others say it's still not enough.

"At the installation level, in some instances, you have line mangers included, but more often than not it's senior managers at the installations where line managers are not included," she said. "The line managers, as was said in the session, are the boots on the ground. The line managers add incredible value to that situation. They can say, 'This is a nice thought, but this might work a little better.' They work day-to-day with the unions so that also lends a lot of experience to the situation."

Not a new challenge

Expanding the conversation to include mid-to-upper level managers is not new. Niehaus and others have brought it up at the national council meetings over the years.

John Berry, director, Office of Personnel Management (OPM)

Berry and other administration officials have offered to work with them and be more inclusive of everyone as much as possible. But when asked if she's seen change, Niehaus' response was direct.

"I haven't seen a lot of progress," she said.

Berry said he understands the frustration and once again, promised to address it with FMA.

"I think in many cases they can be [included in the discussions]," he said. "In those 2,000 partnership tables going on around the country, many are. There are not enough senior executives to do those 2,000 meetings all around the country. I know we have very effective mid-management at many of our partnership tables. There are some areas where there are friction points. Some of that is a historical relationship we are trying to work through."

Berry added the council isn't finding the lack of mid-to-upper level management participation in the labor-management discussions a broad problem.

"We are looking," he said. "The staff is keeping in touch with the partnership council and the metrics group is studying this pretty closely. I want to be careful not to allow the exceptions to shape the rule."

Berry said he will sit down the Niehaus and other labor leaders to see if they can come up with an approach that is more inclusive.

Don't give up on training in tight budget times

Inclusion in labor management council meetings wasn't the only concern among federal managers. Berry tried to address several other hot-button issues from employee morale to telework to managing in a stressful environment, which includes expected budget cuts, hiring freezes and the increase in employee retirements.

He said the key to most of these areas is training.

Berry asked each manager in the audience to think about training, what does it take to train employees? He said civilian agencies should follow the Defense Department's model of making training a priority.

And OPM is trying to help in this area too.

"I've also asked my team to consolidate all of the different leadership and communications divisions we've got," he said. "Let's decide the best way to provide those important shared skills and get the same quality training across the organizations with one or two purchases instead of a lot of them."

OPM is expanding the courses the HR University offers to help other agencies.

"We are going to be sharing some of the best training materials online for free, materials that have been developed in concert with other agencies and with the private sector," Berry said. "We are saving agencies millions of dollars by doing this. No more buying the same contractor training over and over again in each agency."

He said managers need to think about what training their employees would need to step into their shoes. He said the SES initiative to give these workers leadership training in the first year and refresh it at least every three years could be expanded to the next level of managers down. Training is one part of the SES initiative, which is focused on performance improvement.

Berry said the SES initiative still is in the early stages, but he expects the initiative would be a learning experience. OPM will issue a practices guide or something more formal later this year.

No room for poorly performing workers

The other area Berry emphasized to managers is they shouldn't hold onto poorly performing workers. He said with expected lower budgets every employee must perform.

"I have told my senior managers and mid-level managers that if a frontline supervisors come to you with a proposed action to remove a problem employee, you have to back them up," he said. "I'm not saying just rubber stamp. But all too often we find where we fail to hold people accountable is not the frontline supervisors, but that supervisor's supervisor, who is afraid to take the risk, who doesn't want to wade into the details and who doesn't want to get involved."

Berry said training plays a role in this as well.

Every OPM supervisor down to the front line will go through a training program on how to have difficult conversations, how to hold people accountable, how to set goals and use the performance improvement process.

"Performance improvement plans work," Berry said. "We are really re-energizing them at OPM. We are providing employees an opportunity to retrain. And their work is then being closely monitored by a supervisor with specific deadlines. They know what is needed to be successful and where they must improve."

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