Shutdown Showdown: 5 Priorities to Restore Fairness for Feds

For years now, the beleaguered federal workforce has paid too high a price for the political ineptitude of Congress.

Hard working and loyal public servants should never be used as political pawns in an ideological chess match. Feds are not sacrificial lambs that lawmakers can conveniently use to cover up their own conspicuous failure to govern.

The current government shutdown is just the latest body blow to feds who are already on the ropes and gasping for breath. That’s why our longstanding and unmet priorities should be given serious consideration during negotiations to end the fiscal stalemate.

Champions of federal workers have a rare window of opportunity to fight for our priorities as part of any broad bipartisan agreement.

  • So what do feds want?

Following are five priorities for the President to put on the negotiating table:

1) Reopening Government. Feds want to return to work ASAP. The ongoing shutdown has not only caused our bills to pile up, but also caused an unnecessary major setback to the important work of serving the public. The sooner government reopens the sooner feds can get back to doing the people’s business.

2) Fair Pay. In addition to shutdown back pay, feds want to melt away the multi-year pay freeze imposed by Congress. We deserve a retroactive pay increase at a modest level for the past three years in which federal pay was frozen solid. Feds also deserve to be paid on par with our private sector counterparts, many of whom earn more for doing the same or similar work, according to several studies.

3) Stopping the Sequester. Feds have labored under the sinister sequester and draconian budget cuts for far too long. Most feds must not only do their own jobs but also those of co-workers who have departed government service without being replaced.

It has been reported that only one federal employee is being hired for every three that leave government. This poses severe challenges to providing critically important government services which the American people have come to rely upon and expect.

4) Work-Life Balance. In the 21st century workplace many feds desire a greater work-life balance. This has been shown to increase productivity and morale while decreasing absenteeism and employee indifference.

Incentive programs such as telework, flexible schedules, and even a “results-only work environment” (ROWE) should be universally adopted to keep pace with changes to the modern workplace. Agency leaders and managers need to understand that work is what one does, not necessarily where one does it.

That’s why a results-only work ethic should replace the antiquated punch-the-clock mentality conducive to a brick and mortar work structure.

5) IT Investments. Last but not least, feds need cutting-edge IT tools to serve taxpayers more effectively, efficiently and expeditiously. The adoption of IT advancements – or lack thereof – can make or break the popular concept of doing more with less.

CIOs need more funding to leverage new technology for improving mission critical programs – such as cyber security, cloud computing, Big Data analysis and Open Government.

It’s also time to move beyond BYOD to an all encompassing mobile/digital work culture. This means agencies should ditch the BlackBerry and provide feds with the latest smartphone and tablet technology.

These practical IT investments will yield significant cost savings for taxpayers over the long run, while simultaneously making government more open and accessible immediately.

Fighting for Feds

In short, these five priority issues must be placed on the negotiating table and fought for by the President and other friends of federal employees. If not, then there will be little chance of achieving real fairness for the federal workforce.

It was refreshing, albeit surprising, that the House recently showed that it can in fact do something positive legislatively. The House leadership acted with lightening speed by approving furlough back pay for feds.

Therefore, why can’t Congress emulate that example by approving other key priorities of federal civil servants?

The federal worker priorities listed above are reasonable, rational and long overdue. They would result in a federal workforce that is more productive, accountable and provides better service to the American people.

Moreover, approving these priorities would also offer strong incentives to attract a new generation of young people to federal service. This is especially important as the so-called “retirement tsunami” and related “brain drain” negatively impact the federal workforce.

That’s why fiscal negotiations between the President and Congress provide a promising forum to fight for federal worker priorities.

Isn’t it about time that feds were treated with the respect, recognition and dignity we deserve?


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* All views and opinions are those of the author only.

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Kathryn David

This is a great piece! I hope Congress will take your advice as they come to a deal. Public service is extremely important, but can only achieve the great things it ought to do with proper funding and fair treatment for employees.

Dale M. Posthumus

1) Agree. President and Congress should be required to have a budget in place by 10/1, with significant consequences for failure to do so. Previous budget automatically continues until a budget is passed.
2) Federal employees should be fairly compensated. Salary/wages are only part of the picture. You said yourself that Feds have better benefits and more job security. These have considerable value. I believe that if the Federal hiring/firing process were improved (including moving in and out more than once), you would see greater pressure on improving Federal compensation. It would definitely benefit agencies and their work. Need more flexibility in compensation and labor category definitions.
3) Sequester, yes, but we still need a top to bottom review and elimination of unnecessary bureaucracy, wasteful and damaging duplication, stove-piping, refusal of agencies to work together, unnecessary and duplicative programs and policies, poor performers (workers and managers), disruptive and wasteful hierarchy, etc. There is a lot of waste that can be wrung from the Federal Government, which would improve service and morale.
4) Agreed, although we may differ somewhat in how to accomplish this.
5) Yes and no. The investments must be rational, we must eliminate unnecessary duplication, and significantly improve the Federal workforce, both in IT services and in the contracting folks who run acquisitions.

David B. Grinberg

Dale: thanks so much for your thoughtful insights. I especially like your points that:

  • “More flexibility in compensation and labor category definitions” — and
  • “Investments must be rational, we must eliminate unnecessary duplication, and significantly improve the Federal workforce, both in IT services and in the contracting folks who run acquisitions.”

Kathryn: thanks for the kind words, it’s always nice to receive positive feedback. I tried to convey the message about “proper funding and fair treatment for employees” to the Speaker and Tea Party radicals but they won’t take my calls (lol).

David Dejewski

Government employees are people, and we all want to see people treated fairly. I’d have to be hard pressed to assert that this idea of fairness and wonderful working environments has much of a chance for happening in today’s environment.

Government employees are pawns from the perspective that politicians can evoke the name of the working people and point out how the opposing party is hurting them. It tugs an emotional chord, but it ends there. I don’t believe for a moment that Congress is working to provide fairness for government employees or give them work-life balance or the latest technology.

The fact is, “leadership” is either effective or it’s not. In our case, it is not. Our political system has been irresponsible with America’s resources for 43 years. The law was engineered to prevent (or at least mitigate) irresponsibility and abuse. Under the law, if we’re irresponsible, we lose our rights.

Leadership has been irresponsible. They don’t collaborate or compromise as they used to. They commit resources the country doesn’t have. Accountability for real issues has devolved into accountability for foul language or a personal sexual behavior. They’ve racked up more interest than the entire GDP of smaller nations. They point fingers, hurt one another whenever they believe they can get away with it, nany-nany-boo-boo, and generally act like children.

As a result, our leadership lost their right to spend money. Without the right to spend money, things don’t get done and people don’t get paid. Government employees and people who rely on government services pay the price.

Government employees suffer – not because they have value or don’t have value. They suffer because they are paid directly from the people who’ve lost their right to spend money.

David B. Grinberg

David, thanks so much for sharing your unique insights and eye-opening analysis.

I agree with you that the “idea of fairness and wonderful working environments [does not] has much of a chance for happening in today’s environment.”

Nevertheless, as the saying goes: nothing ventured, nothing gained.

While no one expects Congress and the President to agree on all — or even most — of the five fed employee priorities outlined, it’s possible that the President might be able to extract some modicum of agreement on some of issues during the give-and-take of negotiations and horse trading.

  • This appear to be the best chance federal employee have to attempt reversing at least some of the setbacks imposed on them.

Even if it only means that government reopens and perhaps the President can convince Congress to approve his 1% pay raise for feds in FY 2014, that would certainly be better than nothing.

While fairness may appear to be an abstract principle or fleeting concept generally, civil servants have been suffering under this fed-bashing Congress for far too long.

  • Thus why not fight for our traditional rights, like fair pay and favorable working conditions and employee incentives?

Families are hurting and the President owes it to his loyal constituency of federal workers to at least try to improve their situation. These high-level negotiations — in which the President appears to have the upper hand by all accounts — provide the best chance yet for reversing some of the losses feds have suffered through for years.

The worst that can happen is that the President puts some of these issues on the table for consideration but nothing is agreed to. However, at least trying to negotiate on fed employee priorities is better than nothing.

This would also send a symbolic message to the nation and federal workforce — if nothing else — that public servants should be more valued rather than screwed over for no fault of their own. Let’s not forget that the federal government is the nation’s largest employer.

The fact is, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, we don’t know what we don’t know regarding what Congress may or may not agree to as part of the negotiating process.

  • But, as I noted, if nothing for feds is even put on the table then the result is sure to be nothing — and, at this point, something (or anything) is better than nothing. Small progress beats no progress.

So what’s the harm in trying?

We both agree that feds have been used and abused by the House leadership as political “pawns” — which is more reason why the President should fight for our rights: the right to fair pay and better work conditions, which is emblematic of the model workplace government aspires to be.

This is also important to attract desperately need new talent to the federal workforce, especially the younger generations with whom Uncle Sam is competing against the private sector and global marketplace.

Let’s remember that the current House leadership already approved back pay for furloughed feds, which many expert political analysts did not think was likely or even possible. Moreover, let recall that Congress already passed Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 as well as whistle blower protections for feds, the NO FEAR Act and other pro-fed measures over the years.

I agree with you that Congressional leaders, especially in the current House, have been largely “irresponsible” and ineffective in governing, but that doesn’t mean friends of feds — like the President — should just throw in the towel and waive the white flag of surrender on priority issues for feds.

The bottom line here is that the President may be in the strongest negotiating position yet to extract concessions from Congress. So why not at least try to improve the situation somewhat for feds who have been bashed and beaten up for so long?

You state that our government leaders have “lost their right to spend money” — perhaps in theory but not in reality.

  • And since government spending will continue, why not try to extract some fiscal concessions for loyal and hard working civil servants who have suffered through pay freezes, furloughs and sequester for no fault of their own?

As you know, negotiators always start by asking for more than they expect to receive and then bargaining down for the best deal. That doesn’t mean nothing can be achieved for feds as the two sides compromise and ultimately reach some broad consensus.

The House leadership has made many unreasonable and unrealistic demands on the President, which have incrementally been pared down — like defunding and dismantling the Affordable Care Act. They are now asking for more minor concessions like repealing the medical device tax, etc.

So, again, while some of the five fed priorities may appear unlikely to win bipartisan approval in the current negotiations, what’s wrong with at least trying to extract some or any concessions for the federal family?

  • Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Thanks again, David, for sharing your valuable perspectives which are most appreciated.

Julie Chase

1) Reopening Government. I have been at work the entire time. “essential” in direct support of the military. So have my co workers. Oct 7th….everyone else is back on the installation. However, we have NO MONEY to “support” the daily missions for Marines on the installations. No gas, no supplies, no parts,….Parts/Supply Contractors have been gone since Oct 1. If the CG needs windshield wipers for his gov vehicle…”sorry, no can do.”

2) Fair Pay.Ah yes, the “pay freeze” and the continuation of what we here like to call “NSPS lite”, version 2 of the insane PFP crap. Only half of our workforce is on it…. If you are a GS, you are in NSPS “lite”…if you are a WG, you are under PARS. I realize not all civ service is under this type of pay system…but something has got to give. Since our NSPS lite pay out depending on if you are a 1, 2, 3 or 4….. for most of us is less than $150.00 we take it in award leave amounts. It’s not worth it….. Not one of our WG got a bonus (a percentage of their base pay)….this year or last year. Makes them really want to “work” now doesn’t it?

3) Stopping the Sequester. You’ve got that right. We have 3 open billets that are soon going to be upped to 5 at this years end. Might I add 2 more are leaving in June 2014. No hiring in sight. No chance of moving up within the organization either. So again, how are we “supporting” our troops, with no money, no supplies/parts, no employees?

4) Work-Life Balance. This is not going to happen on military installations. We work when the troops work. If they need something at 7 am for their mission, we are “there” at 7 am to provide it…..until COB at 4 PM. No such thing as tele-work for production….and no such thing as “flexible scheduling” either. Bodies are need a full 8 hour day….for military support. After hours…..overtime….3 shifts…long gone.

5) IT Investments. While in our area, blackberry’s are not a necessity, we do need some upgrades in IT. However, in the name of “security”, it’s all about the “PROCESS of procurement” for the simple things like software that our NMCI contract does not provide. (don’t get me started on NMCI, the biggest mistake ever made). I would like to see a way to bundle the software needed by all the GME shops at installations nationwide, vs. each organization ordering software and yearly subscriptions, licenses, etc etc…. through the arduous procurement system currently in place. It goes like this, paperwork, paperwork, paperwork, paperwork, approval, approval, approval, not approved, back to the drawing board. It takes, I kid you not, over 6 months start to finish to get software. It takes over 8 months to get IT hardware. WHY????? I would like to click on something, download the software to our mobile laptops and be done with it. I think the cost savings alone would be astronomical! IT procurement is a nightmare in DoD, Navy/MC.

David, love your stuff….keep asking the questions….maybe someone outside will hear the voices on the dust speck from Horton’s nose.