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Gov sheds 80,000 jobs – Can you still do more with less?

“The federal government shed 2,000 jobs in December, ending 2013 with a net loss of 79,000 positions, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The total federal workforce — including military personnel and USPS employees — sits around 4.3 million. But that number is expected to shrink in the next few years.” – Government Executive.

Personnel is shrinking but demand for government services is on the rise. So what can leaders do to ease the stress on their employees? Can you really do more with less? Tom Fox is the Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. He told Chris Dorobek that the job losses are being felt at every agency.

“I was pretty stunned when I saw the report. I can’t help but harken back to the 90s mantra, “do more with less.” Back then we realized that it wasn’t a mantra, it was a fallacy. I think leaders really need to be thoughtful heading into 2014, thinking about how we are going to manage to fulfill our goals, to complete our work, with the recognition that we have fewer folks and we may in fact we may have fewer folks at the end of the year than we do right now,” said Fox.

Are we losing positions that are necessary?

“I have not seen the specific breakdown to figure out who exactly these 80,000 people may have worked before. But what it suggests is a broader government trend that with all the different proposals that are out there to cut the budget to meet the goals of sequestration, personnel numbers are going to continue to take a hit. You can’t expect to do more with less. Really as a leader you need to make some decisions about what you will do and what you won’t do. How you will sequence those activities and ultimately where can you as a leader and as a team innovative to do things better and differently,” said Fox.

What should leaders do in the age of austerity?

  • The first steps should be to take stock. In government agencies, more often than not, what you find is people just add activities to the already full workload. Overtime that can be a pretty impressive workload. So the first thing to do is to really take stock of what is it that we do, what activities, events, what are the deliverables we are expected to produce on a regular basis?
  • Then, with your team, suss out which ones of these projects are mission critical, which ones are questionable and which ones are discretionary things that maybe 20 years ago were necessary but maybe that reason doesn’t exist today. Take a good hard look at what you do and whether or not you need to do those things.
  • Then go to your senior leadership, especially for those things that you think you no longer need to do, have an honest conversation with your senior leaders about those programs, so that you can reduce the workload of your folks.

The Washington Post notes that sometimes government duplications is mandated by Congress. How do you fix that?

“Those are things that maybe you can get your senior leaders to support, to reach out to the Hill to see if you can make some amendments. But if I were a leader in government right now, I would focus on what I could control. There are things undoubtedly you team does that it doesn’t need to do. Look to clear the path just as quickly as possible, it is a great way to ease their burden and ease your burden in the process. It is not going to be sufficient. There is going to be a huge workload with the loss of people on the job. So you do have to think about if there is a new way to sequence work, so that you can spread it out over time so it doesn’t feel so oppressive. Or are there opportunities for innovation?” said Fox.

Define what really matters?

“If everything is deemed important, nothing really is. This is really cascading throughout the various leadership levels throughout an organization, you need to be clear with your team about what your priorities really are. That way if in fact something is going to slip, you can ensure that it is the stuff that doesn’t directly affect customer service to taxpayers, doesn’t affect reporting to the hill, or to the other watchdog agencies,” said Fox.

Bloomberg news reports, NASA is required to build an engine that no one is going to use. These stories drive not only the taxpayer crazy but feds too.

“Everyone is frustrated about that, including the employees who are asked to complete these tasks. You need to make sure you pick the right battles. It is worth picking an issue or two (not worth picking a ton of fights) and try to fix it for your folks so they can focus,” said Fox.

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Dale M. Posthumus

I agree that “more with less” can be misleading. I think these descriptions of the real situation and suggestions on dealing with reduced staffing are practical and could help. These ideas apply just as easily to the private sector, although private organizations generally are more able to quickly assess and make needed changes.

One issue I have with govt employment is that I believe it is out of balance in the sense that it is more difficult to move people around, share resources within and among agencies, and hire and fire people, whether short-term or long-term. It is also the problem of across-the-board budget cuts, rather than really assessing how money should be allocated.

Eric Melton

You can only do more with less when you have high levels of quality or time that can be sacrificed. Otherwise, if your quality or time is already constrained, you push more on your people at your own peril (risking losses in quality or time)!