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Budget, Blather, Repeat – You’re back at work, now what?

After 16 long days, the government is back to work. Hundreds of thousands of workers returned to their office after three weeks of confusion and worry.

However just because government is open for business it doesn’t mean things are back to normal. Jeff Neal is the Senior Vice President with ICF International. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that the lead up to the budget deal was a little like playing whack-a-mole. (This interview was recorded a day before the shutdown ended.)


During the shutdown we saw a lot of individual programs get funded but not all of them. Why?

“In Whack-A-Mole, the kids game, a little mole pops its head out of a hole and you are supposed to hit it with a hammer. You keep on doing that until they are popping up so fast that you can’t hit them anymore. Then the game is over. That’s really what I saw with Congress reacting to the public outcry over things like closing memorials. The memorials were closed. People were getting upset. So Congress says “ah, we’ll open the memorials.” People got upset because death benefits were not being paid to the families of our military who have died in the line of duty. So they fixed that too. You have item after item that people start realizing, “Wow people actually do kind of benefit from this government thing.” Congress decided maybe we should keep part of it open after all and they start trying to play whack-a-mole with the things that people are screaming about. As the shutdown progresses it will get to a point where you just can’t whack enough of these moles and the public will have a fit over it, because it is so irresponsible to be doing it this way,” said Neal.

Government is more than individual agencies, a team?

“When people who are outside of government think of it, they see it as a collective of unrelated organizations. They think the DOD doesn’t really work with DHS. But in reality there is this whole other world that is referred to as the Inter-Agency. That is the world between agencies where things actually get done. A good example is DHS and DOD. Those two departments work together all the time. There is an enormous amount of work that they do that can not be done without the other one. So when big chunks of agencies are shutdown, it may very well be that I am working today, but the people I need to work with in two or three other departments aren’t here. When they are not there the stuff that I need to get done can’t be done, because they own a piece of it. So when you start taking chunks out of the Inter-Agency, you start finding that things can’t be done,” said Neal.

What’s the role of the Inter-Agency?

“There is so much work that gets done in the interagency, that when we are bringing people up in the civil service particularly people we think are going to be real stars at some point in government we get them exposed to the Inter-Agency. We teach them how to make the context and build the relationships. How to share information and how to work in Inter-Agency groups. Those groups have become more essential as government has become more complex in the past few years. This is something that I think has some potential long-term implications that aren’t going to go away just because we turn government back on. Government doesn’t work like a toggle switch. You can’t just turn it back on and think everything will return to normal. There have been a couple of weeks of things not getting done and there may be a little more of that,” said Neal.

Government is reopened, but how do you deal with the shutdown emotions?

“Leaders are going to be dealing with anger, envy and righteous indignation. Someone is going to say, “I had to work for three weeks straight and I didn’t get paid. And my neighbor down the street had three weeks off and she’s getting paid for the entire time.” What a lot of agencies are going to have to do is help their employees through that. It is almost like dealing with grief. In some respects you have to go through some stages to get to the end. What I am afraid we are going to find is it isn’t over when it’s over. There are lasting repercussions that the agencies will have to deal with. That resentment and anger is a big part of it,” said Neal

Employee engagement and satisfaction will take a dip.

“There has been a lot of research over the past 20 years that shows the level of employee engagement really drives how effective an organization can be. It also drives a lot of other things like on the job injuries. Injuries go up at organizations where the employees are less engaged. So what we are going to find is agencies are going to have to deal with that, they are going to have to try to keep their workload up with a staff that has been demoralized, they are going to have to keep people from bailing on them because more and more people are eligible for retirement. Some of the younger employees may choose to leave too. If you are a 25 year old federal employee – you aren’t so invested in the federal government to stick around. The civil service retirement plan that they are covered under – FERS – doesn’t offer a really generous pension and TSP benefits are completely portable, so they can just leave. Some of the really talented ones may very well do that. So the government may end up losing more of its older and more experienced people and at the same time lose a lot of the people who are supposed to be the future. When they lose those people the government will have to recruit. And think of the sales pitch – what do you tell them? What is the pitch you can use to tell them a federal career is a really good thing to do? If someone just out of college came to me and said should I consider the federal government, I don’t know if I could say yes to them,” said Neal.

How do you motivate your employees:

  • The most important thing that people can do when they get back to work is show appreciation for what people do. Right now federal employees are getting kicked around in the press, there are a lot of people criticising what federal employees do. They need to see that the people that are leading their organizations know and appreciate what they do. It is very difficult to over-appreciate somebody. It is free, easy to do, and it does help show people that somebody appreciates what they do. That is particularly true when the person appreciating them does their employee performance review.
  • The other thing I would recommend is don’t keep putting pressure on managers to keep the ratings low. This workforce has been through a lot. They have been kicked out, furloughed, not paid and when you start looking at giving performance rating, give them a rating to help incentivize them to keep working. Don’t try to just give everybody a level three rating because that’s what someone tells you to do. Let the ratings float up a little bit to help remind people you appreciate what they are doing and how valuable what they are doing is to the agency.

“Those things don’t cost you anything. And they can help,” said Neal.

How is employee satisfaction and engagement linked?

“What you generally find is that employees in organizations where employee engagements are high – employee satisfaction is high. But you also find a lot of organizations where you ask if people are satisfied with their work they will say yes and it is generally because they really like the kind of work they do. Or they really appreciate the mission of the organization. At TSA for example they really appreciate the mission. They rate high on mission. They rate low on everything else. It is one of the least engaged workforces in the entire government. On best places to work they rank near the bottom. But the employees really care about the mission. So you see numbers where it is almost counterintuitive that somebody who says they are satisfied with their job to have other responses that are so negative. But it is they like the mission and the work, but they don’t like their supervisors or how they are treated. So there is an internal conflict with the employees there because they like what they do and believe in their mission but they don’t like how they are treated,” said Neal.

Welcome back your employees?

You have to very consciously be trying to welcome people back. You need to recognize that what they have been through is miserable. It has basically of been a couple of weeks of employee abuse. You need to recognize that and welcome them back to the workforce. You need to help people prioritize what they should tackle first. People who are doing the work in an organization generally have a far better picture of what is being done than what their bosses do. So many times in a time of crisis like this they want to engage in top down management because they think that is the quickest way to get things done but this is a case where bottom up management is a better and more effective approach because the employees will know what needs to be done,” said Neal.

Is the budget process broken?

“Obviously the budget process is broken. It used to be that the Congress would pass a budget in the spring, then the appropriation bills throughout the summer. There are 12 major appropriations bills and those would be passed through the summer and early fall. When you got to the start of the fiscal year people knew what their budget was going to be because the bill was passed two months ago.

  • Now what happens is that the budget doesn’t get passed. I can’t remember the last time all 12 appropriations were passed. Agencies are dealing with these CR’s. With a CR you can’t start new projects, so a lot of things that agencies have wanted to do in the last few years have been stopped because it is considered to be a new start. So it freezes a lot of things in place and keeps a lot of good things from happening.
  • Now we are three weeks into the new fiscal year and agencies don’t know what their budget is and they are going to get a new CR, which will reopen the government for another few months. Then a lot of this stuff will go on again. This is like the infinite loop on the back of a shampoo bottle where it says rinse – lather – repeat and if you repeat it, it goes on forever. It is budget, bather, repeat. It will happen again and again.
  • Best case they are going to get a CR that carries them out until January. In January they will get a CR that carries them out until the end of the fiscal year. If that happens then agencies will have to distribute the money amongst the various component parts so a lot of people at the operating level won’t know what their budget is until February or March. Then they are going to have set priorities based on that. If they are trying to contract some things they are going to have to do that. All that contracting is going to get pushed out to the last quarter of the year because nobody had enough time to do the work upfront like they were supposed to.
  • The very people who were responsible for not having a budget until the end of the year are going to complain that they are engaging year spending spree. If you gave them their money at the beginning of the year they wouldn’t have to do an end of year spending spree because they would have had time to plan. We have basically taken away from a lot of agencies the ability to plan and then we criticize them for not planning.

What can they do to move forward?

“They can recognize that although it feels like they are getting beaten on all the time, most people actually appreciate what federal employees do. I was talking to someone who was traveling this weekend and they made a point of saying thank you to the TSA officers at the airport. Thank you for working without pay right now. A lot of people really appreciate them. They appreciate National Parks, Student Loans, Social Security they appreciate the job our troops do. The work that the civilian employees of 800,000 do day in and day out to support those troops. I think we are going to find that the attitudes towards federal employees actually goes up a bit due to the shutdown. People will have more appreciate for what feds do every day. They can take an enormous amount of pride in what they do. Public service is still that – it is service. And what federal employees do everyday is very very good work for the American people. These are folks that are doing the people’s work. They can take a lot of pride in that. It makes a difference. The country is much better off by the work of those folks,” said Neal.

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Profile Photo Alicia Dickerson

Great analysis of the interelatedness of government. Jeff Neal’s comments point out the absurdity of attempting to pick and choose from among favored agencies.

He also hits the nail on the head about how critical it is to address employee engagment and morale in an open and honest way.

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