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The government wants change. Will they bring in the right cultural experts to make it happen?

NOTE: This is my column from my Women’s Entrerepreneur column that I write for the DC Examiner. This and past columns can be found at http://www.examiner.com/x-12152-DC-Womens-Entrepreneurship-Examiner.

Last week I attended an Excellence in Government breakfast at the National Press Club. The panel spoke on “Human Capital” and the future of civil service. Allow me to define “Human Capital.” According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), “Human Capital” is “Our Federal workforce…our most important asset.”

AS CEO of a growing business, I absolutely agree that the people of an organization are its most important asset. I also know from experience (as a business leader and as a human capital practitioner) that an organization requires clearly defined strategies to recruit, develop, and retain the people that they cherish so much. Otherwise they won’t have them anymore.

The panel, which included Congressman Gerald Connolly (Virginia), as well as editors and journalists from Government Executive magazine, discussed the government’s need to restore a sense of respect for, and a belief in, public service. Currently, according to the panel, the public attitude towards federal service has filtered down towards career choices.

The government is facing a retirement tsunami, and government leaders of Human Capital – often referred to as Chief Human Capital Officers or “CHCOs” – are very aware of what’s coming down the pike. In the next five years approximately 600,000 workers will be able to retire from their government jobs. That equals roughly 47% of the federal workforce.

This situation poses enormous challenges for our government, and for our country:
1: The leaders of the next generations are not really interested in filling these positions.
2: There is no clear strategy to ensure that the intellectual capital – the experience and knowledge acquired during 30 years of service – is appropriately transferred to the next wave of workers.

In addition, there has been a forced convergence of multiple generations in our government, which has created a very interesting dynamic. Workers are staying in their positions longer, but they are also starting their careers earlier. In today’s business environment, we have 4 generations of workers working together. So you may very well have an eager, bright-eyed 22-year old wearing their iPod during work hours (whenever and wherever that may be), constantly texting, twittering, and facebooking, alongside someone (literally or figuratively) considerably older who is accustomed to a more traditional work environment.

So how exactly does our government transform itself into a career option that is attractive to the Millennial generation?

How do the Human Capital leaders fix both the internal perceptions and external perceptions of government? OPM recently conducted its latest Federal Human Capital Survey to evaluate the satisfaction of the federal workforce, and identify the areas that need improvement. And while many of the results were positive, what I found to be alarming was that only 50% of the workers actually felt it was important enough to respond. Here are some of the highlights of the survey:

Ninety-one percent believe their work is important. This continues to be the highest rated item on the survey. Eighty-four percent know how their work relates to the agency’s goals and priorities. Seventy-five percent believe the workforce has the knowledge and skills to get the job done. Sixty-eight percent are satisfied with their jobs.

Recognizing high performance and dealing with poor performers show improvement, but work still needs to be done in these areas.

Fifty percent are satisfied with recognition for doing a good job. Only 40 percent say creativity and innovation are rewarded. About 30 percent believe performance differences are recognized in a meaningful way or see steps taken to address poor performance.

Only 26 percent see a link between performance and pay raises. This item received the highest negative rating on the survey.

Substantiating the concerns highlighted in this survey is a noticeable increase in Requests for Proposals surrounding the areas of cultural assessments, cultural audits, and other critical human capital issues. Agencies are taking proactive measures to get a grasp on what is happening at every level of the agency from a cultural perspective.
In addition, Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI) introduced legislation that would require agencies to provide all managers with regular, ongoing training on management skills, employee rights and general leadership. The goal of the Federal Supervisor Training Act of 2009 (S.674) is to improve accountability and leadership in the federal supervisor ranks.

The bill requires the head of each federal agency to establish:
(1) a program to provide training to supervisors on developing and discussing relevant goals and objectives with all employees; (2) a program to provide training to supervisors on prohibited personnel practices, employee collective bargaining and union participation rights, and processes to enforce employee rights; and (3) a program under which experienced supervisors mentor new supervisors.

In addition, as I mentioned in my previous column, OPM Director John Barry announced a comprehensive plan to jumpstart agency telework programs, giving thousands more Federal employees nationwide the opportunity to work from home. The components of Barry’s plan are drawn from two bills which have been introduced in Congress: H.R. 1722, the “Telework Improvements Act of 2009.”

It is so encouraging to see progress from both the agency leaders and Congress as they work to create essential cultural shifts, which will lead to a stronger government and stronger nation.

As a small business owner who has always been so focused on my own organizational culture, I couldn’t be happier that our government is taking such important steps to build a culture similar to that which I strive to create every day…
a culture that is shaped by transparency, accountability, innovation, creativity, and work-life integration.

However, I can’t help but wonder if the leaders at the helm will invest the time required to learn best practices from the companies that embody the cultures they want to build – the small businesses that make up 99.7 percent of all U.S. employers.

Will they ultimately award the contracts to those who already live and breathe their vision of accountability, transparency, innovation, creativity, and work-life integration – to the small businesses of America? Or will they turn to the larger companies who are in many ways mirrors of their current selves?

As a small business owner with an outstanding human capital practice that is already working with more than a dozen government agencies, has extraordinarily low attrition, an incredible culture, and “gets” the workforce the government wants, that is my personal $54,000 question. In fact I took a risk and asked this column at the breakfast.

As I had this epiphany, I knew that if I stated it aloud, I would either come across as an idiot, or I would come across as someone who was making a very important connection.

Nervously, I approached the microphone that stood in the center of more than 200 attendees. With all eyes on me, I looked straight at the panel and said, “The culture you are describing – one of transparency, accountability, creativity, innovation, technology advancement, and work life integration – describes the culture naturally found in a small business. What is the government’s plan to incorporate best practices to build this culture, and work with small businesses to help you achieve your goals?”

After several awkward moments of silence the moderator replied, “The government is not a small business.”

I thanked him for stating the obvious, and re-emphasized my point that the government has the aspirations to develop a similar culture. He told me he had to move on to the next question.

So who will the government turn to for change? Will they look to the companies that walk the walk? Because here’s a newsflash. The large companies that currently dominate more than 70% of government contracting don’t have the cultural attributes the government wants.

One of the panelists made a comment that you wouldn’t want to purchase meat from a butcher that is a vegetarian. Where will the government be purchasing their meat?

For more information on the OPM Federal Human Capital Survey and the Best Places to Work in the Government, visit:



For more information on the Federal Supervisor Act of 2009, visit:


For more information on the Telework Enhancement Act of 2009, visit:


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Guy Martin

It sounds like the moderator of the panel is indicative of the kind of person we actually WANT to retire as part of that 600,000. I’m torn here, because on the one hand I respect the service that all of our government and military leaders have put in, but quite frankly, there is a LOT about their experience and culture that simply CANNOT be passed on to the incoming generation if we have any hope of meeting the goals of transparency, collaboration, and openness that have been proven out in small businesses (great analogy BTW).

I’m not advocating throwing the baby out with the bath water, because there are processes that need to remain in place to insure national security and financial responsibility, but other than processes in those two areas, the whole culture needs to be scrapped and we have to move to a more agile operating environment. In my opinion, the only way that happens is generationally – empowering those who are willing to give more than the stock answer that the moderator gave to you.

Marissa Levin

I think when they finally implement accountability and pay-for-performance measures, as well as train supervisors on how to manage remote teams, there will be some changes. One of the panelists mentioned a suervisor in an agency that measured a remote worker’s productivity by the number of keystrokes they took! What???!!!!

John Manecke

Your example is illustrative of the environment. The people in charge can’t even fathom the question you are asking. It was too big of a leap for them. Frustrating to hear that.

It will take disruptive change to move the culture. The potential retirement of 600K may be what brings about significant culture change among federal employees. It WILL change things. New people will step up to lead.

Marissa Levin

I see this as a tremendous window of opportunity to bring in small businesses. I am actually meeing with the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship in a couple of weeks and will bring this topic to the table.

Allen Sheaprd

Pay – its what we all need but “trading the precious hours of my life for a fist full of trasitory dollars” is not good. If it was all about money I would quit computers and become a rock star, play football, base ball or become an actor. Those guys and gals make more than the President.

“If you can get paid for what you like to do you will never have to work another day in your life” – Finding the right job fit is important. Here the EU is ahead of us – IMO. Recognition helps – but so does self determination.

I hope you read “Its Your Ship” by Brasenoff.(sp?) Why? Be it den leader of cub scouts or Captian of a ship – adventure, learning, teamwork, recognition and making a good difference counts.


Denise Hill

I see a few items here that while Human Capital related, are not. The cultures of the organization are imbeded in the organization. Will bringing in cultural experts really make it happen? Is it the cultural experts or the senior management supporting what ever desired change? Requirements should creep into the equasion. While the cultural experts are at work, the other item the retirees are retiring. Statistics being what they are, is there a % concentration in a particular area of retirees that has to happen in order to make way for the cultural experts to effect change? Just asking.

Rob Ahern

Really interesting article- thanks for posting. As someone with experience in or with academia, government, and industry, I’ve had the somewhat unique opportunity to compare and contrast the operation of these different enterprises. While I’m disappointed in the way your question was dismissed by the moderator, I think something of substance may be taken from his response. The government *isn’t* a small business, which makes creation of a more functional culture that much more challenging; it would be great if an existing model could simply be adopted by the Federal government but, alas, that isn’t the case. While I agree that some large companies suffer some of the problems attributed to big government, I’ve also worked with Fortune 500 companies that, while large, are incredibly nimble and make the most of their human capital. Just as it would be a mistake to model dysfunctional large companies out of ease, some of the aspects that make small companies so unique may not scale well or feasibly. As a relatively young member of the Federal workforce, I’m excited to be part of the generation who will tackle (and ultimately overcome) these challenges by integrating successful approaches from a variety of models. Again, thanks for posting.

Marissa Levin

Hi Rob: thank you so much for your comments. I agree that not *all* small businesses are transparent, innovative, nimble, etc., and I agree that not *all* large businesses are bureaucratic, slow, and non-innovative. The government is an incredible community of highly unique organizations, all that have their own unique cultures, and both large and small businesses have much value to bring to them. Yet many of the agencies share similar cultural challenges and personnel challenges, due in part to the infrastructure that has been in place since the government was formed. The challenges that the returement tsunami are bringing, combined with unprecedented sociological changes (social media, telecommuting, 4 generations in the workplace, etc.) are altering the government culture. It’s just the way it is. I personally am very excited about the opportunities for change – the opportunities to strengthen our government, bring in the new generations of workers, and propel our government ahead. I have always been a big believer of Yin/Ynag philosophies: within crisis lies opportunity. And as a true entrepreneur ar heart, I look at every challenge with one motto: See A Need; Fill a Need.

Daniel Honker

Great column Marissa! In my work we’ve consulted a lot of federal agencies in adopting collaborative technologies. Like these generational issues in general, some “get it” and some just don’t. There are still many managers out there who don’t want to un-block YouTube, Facebook, etc. because they think their employees’ productivity will suffer (I think these must be the same managers that clock their subordinates’ keystrokes…)

I had the pleasure of meeting John Barry not too long ago, and I’m pretty impressed. His goals are pretty ambitious, and he recognizes the challenges he’s up against, and that similar efforts have failed in the past. He used the analogy that “many good arrows have been flung in the battle, and if we can pick them up out of the ground and launch them all at once, it might work.” Let’s hope he’s right…

Marissa Levin

Hi Daniel: Thank you for your comment! Yes, from what I have seen and heard, I also think highly of John Barry. One of our biggest clients is OPM, and I am excited to see what changes he brings across the entire government. It’s exciting to think abou tall of the opportunties in front of us, and I sincerely hope that both small businesses and large businesses are welcome in propelling the government forward. Currently about 76% of government contracts go to large businesses. We need to even out that ratio.

Eric R. Payne

Marissa – Good article and observation that it may take several rounds of retirements to actually bring about the cultural change that is desired. However, the assertion that the government is facing a retirement tsunami (a big surge in the number of people actually retiring) has been shown to be false.

In 2006 OPM issued several statements about an impending tsunami….According to Springer, 60 percent of the federal government’s General Schedule employees–and 90 percent of the Senior Executive Service–will be eligible to retire in the next ten years. “That’s not just normal turnover, that’s pick it up and walk out the door.” OPM projects that the “tsunami,” as Springer describes it, will crest in 2008-10.
Given that it is now 2009 (the supposed crest) the tsunami does not seem to have formed. This is corroborated by actual reitrement data:
According to a new study co-authored by Kevin P. Coyne of Atlanta’s Coyne Partnership. “Pundits have been telling corporate America for years that the Baby Boomers will soon create a “retirement tsunami”. But there’s one small problem – the pundits are wrong.,” Baby Boomer retirement fallacyhttp://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/cs/2008/05/the_baby_boomer_retirement_fal.html

This tells me that we shouldn’t passively hope that retirements leads to cultural change (because it will take too long), but that leadership must begin to actively encourage a shift to more entrepreneurial behavior.
Ad Astra

Henry Brown

Eric has got at least a somewhat valid point, Have been hearing about the “impending crisis” regarding retirements since at LEAST 2001. MOST of the doom-sayers are of the mind set that when you are eligible for retirement one will retire… IMO A couple of problems with that philosophy:

Generalities follow:

1. the “baby-boomers” do NOT view retirement as the ultimate goal
2. Retirement funding is NOT what it was when the “greatest generation” (Tom Brokaw’s definition of my father’s generation) retired
3. When the economy is less than ideal the retirement rate dramatically decreases

IMO what will PROBABLY drive the next retirement wave is NOT eligibility but when people are not appreciated for the value that they bring to the table. When that will happen suspect no one REALLY knows…

Marissa Levin

Well-said Henry. In any event, I see LOTS of opportunities for qualified small businesses to help with their workforace planning, hiring, recuiritment, education, and communications needs!