You may scoff, but in my opinion, very few employees are as tough and resilient as government employees. In the past year, feds have been furloughed, sequestered and had their pay frozen, and yet when the shutdown shuttered government offices for much of the month of October, most feds, caught in partisan politics, just wanted to return to work.
It is that single minded determination that is often overlooked by the media and the public at large. Last night’s State of the Union was no exception. There were very few mentions of government employees (Full SOTU Transcript) or the good work that they accomplished despite some serious challenges.
Tom Fox is the Vice President for Education and Outreach at the Partnership for Public Service. Before the State of the Union, Fox and Chris Dorobek sat down to talk about what they would want to hear the President say about feds.
“I had a conversation with a Stanford management professor last week. I was talking to him about the challenges facing government innovation. He stopped me in my tracks and said, ‘Look, when I think of innovation, I think first of government stories.’ This is a guy who has spent most of his time with the silicon valley set. I think it is really incumbent upon not just the President, but senior officials all across government to unearth those bright spots and really shine the spotlight on them because there are too many stories of government ineffectiveness, there are stories of great government impact and results that just aren’t being told. There is no better person than our most senior level leaders in government to tell that story,” said Fox.
What were you hoping for from the SOTU?
“My hope is either in the State of the Union or shortly thereafter, we will hear the President turn his attention more and more back to the promise he made in the first presidential campaign and to make government cool again. In order to accomplish that he is going to need to focus on executive branch operations and management activities to really engage the workforce. Any smart private sector leader knows that they have to get frontline employees engaged. After several very hard years, I think it is time for the President and his cabinet to engage those front line folks to get the work done we need so desperately,” said Fox.
“There are these almost mythical recountings of the first President Bush meeting regularly with the Senior Executive Service. Feds who were there are still talking about them almost 20 years later. The First Lady has toured many of the federal departments and the President in fact met with the Service to America leaders near the end of last year. It was a nice touch, but it was really just a small grouping of our federal leaders and employees. Wouldn’t it be great if joining the First Lady for the State of the Union would be a few outstanding public servants. For example, HUD’s Ann Marie Oliva, she was featured in the Washington Post during the furlough, when she was just absolutely devastated by the shutdown. She was worried about both her staff and the homeless folks that HUD serve,” said Fox.
Feels like it is time for a new HR system?
“You have a compensation system that was really updated in the 1940s and updated in the late 1970s, but that is just one element. When I am out in federal agencies talking to folks, I am just frankly amazed at the level of productivity and innovation that federal employees are able to muster despite operating in quite antiquated systems. We have seen the world change two or three times in the way that organizations manage and lead their people. Frankly the management systems and structures in government really are a hinderance to the type of productivity and change needed within the federal government. The committed, high performing feds are there but they are weighed down by a system that needs a major reboot at this point,” said Fox.
President for the day?
“It would be great for the President to set a stretch goal for his cabinet where they would set a goal around the federal government’s best places to work ratings equal to or exceed the private sector benchmarks. It seems to me there is no real reason why you couldn’t have that. In some measures the government does better than the private sector, especially when you look at the mission and employee skills match. All you need to do is update the systems, make sure you effectively lead and motivate folks and I think that it is possible. They could make serious progress in this administration,” said Fox.
What did you want the President to say to feds during the SOTU?