Agency budget squeeze eroding trust between employees, management

Tuesday - 5/20/2014, 2:10am EDT

Susan Tsui Grundmann, chair of the Merit Systems Protection Board, talks with Federal Drive hosts Tom Temin and Emily Kopp

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Declining agency budgets have been blamed for a notable sag in federal-worker morale. But, could an employee's trust in management be another victim of the budget ax?

The Merit Systems Protection Board, which hears employees' appeals of adverse personnel actions, would know.

The small, 200-person agency was flooded with more than 32,000 claims from employees who contested their agency's decision to furlough them last year because of across-the-board sequestration cuts. All told, agencies furloughed more than 700,000 employees in 2013 for one to seven days, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Susan Tsui Grundmann, chair of the MSPB, said many employees said they filed appeals because they didn't trust managers were making the right spending decisions that could have fended off the need to furlough employees.

"One of the issues that keeps coming up is how the agency spends its money," she told Federal News Radio as part of the special report, Trust Redefined: Reconnecting Government and Its Employees.

Susan Tsui Grundmann, MSPB

Employees demanded to know whether the agency could have taken other actions besides furloughs to manage the cuts or whether managers had fairly determined which employees would be exempt from the furloughs.

Part of the problem is that too many employees felt left in the dark about the agency's decision-making process, she said, and that lack of transparency can often breed mistrust.

"When you thoroughly explain how decisions are made — such as sequestration, such as furloughs, such as hiring decisions — there is less of an appearance of favoritism and impropriety," Grundmann told Federal Drive hosts Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.

That's important "because perceptions can become reality," she added. "And perceptions can affect morale, and morale can affect agency performance."

Managers should strive to communicate more frequently with employees — "even the bad news," Grundmann said.

"To the extent that agencies are capable of explaining their decision-making process in plain English, repeatedly, that would be helpful," she said. "And, certainly, employees need to understand that the decisions to furlough them did not come from their first-line supervisors."

The budget turmoil of furloughs, sequestration and the government shutdown has left fractures in the federal workplace.

"Employees feel overwhelmed and that they're shouldering the burdens of the agency's spending decisions," Grundmann said.

But agency management is also still dealing with the fallout.

"They have to process the cases," she said. "They have to defend the cases and take the cases to hearings. So, yes, money might've been saved as a result of the furloughs, but in terms of people and workload, there are no winners here."

All of the furlough appeals are now in the hearing stage. As of March, about 1,600 decisions had been issued, none of them in favor of the employee filing the appeal.

MORE FROM THE SPECIAL REPORT, TRUST REDEFINED:

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Whistleblower hotlines changing the way IGs respond to waste, fraud and abuse

Is hike in whistleblower claims a sign of progress or growing mistrust?

Q&A with Thomas Drake - one of government's most famous whistleblowers

Are you violating the Hatch Act and you don't even know it?

Despite increased reporting of sexual assaults, DoD still struggles to tackle issue

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