What the Future Holds for Federal Workforce Management

The Trump administration released its overarching vision in April for reducing the size and cost of the federal government.

How many federal jobs will be cut is a question that Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney couldn’t answer on the heels of releasing the administration’s workforce reform memo.

“I don’t know the answer … in terms of the total up and the total down,” Mulvaney said at an April press conference. “But I think it probably goes without saying that, net, we think we can run the government more efficiently than the previous administration can, and we think we can run the government with fewer people than the previous administration had.”

Among the key issues that agencies will have to hash out under that plan is workforce management, including ways to boost employee performance and discipline poor performers. These have been ongoing areas for improvement in the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

But like many instructions that come from the top, agencies, their senior leaders and middle managers were given high-level details for making Trump’s vision a reality. For example, agencies will be responsible for filling in the fine print and explaining how they will restructure their workforce and programs, improve employee performance, deal with poor performers and ensure managers are empowered to lead.

“The executive branch of government has never been rebuilt,” Mulvaney said. “It has grown organically over the course of the last 240 years, and the president of the United States has asked all of us in the executive branch to start from scratch, a literal blank piece of paper and say, ‘if you’re going to rebuild the executive branch, what would it look like.’”

Agencies must submit a high-level draft of their reform plan to OMB by June 30. The plan should include progress on near-term workforce reduction actions, a plan to maximize employee performance and a framework that considers how agencies’ activities align with their mission.

In terms of employee performance, the memo calls on agencies to ensure that performance expectations are:

  • Appropriately rigorous
  • Aligned to the work that needs to be done and the grade of the employee
  • Effectively communicated

The administration is counting on agencies to give managers the tools they need to effectively oversee employee performance. That includes recognizing high performers, helping employees identify and address areas in need of improvement, and moving quickly to address employees who are not meeting performance expectations, according to the memo.

But the type of performance and management overhauls called for in the OMB memo aren’t entirely new. If you’ve been in government for any amount of time, then you’ve seen past reports that detail specific actions agencies can take to improve performance feedback, such as connecting performance standards with agency mission and goals, ensuring that feedback is timely and provides actionable, constructive suggestions for improvement, and recognizing supervisors who successfully coach employees.

Over the past two years, federal supervisors as a whole have seen steady increases in their FEVS scores, particularly around questions pertaining to how well they provide worthwhile discussions about employee performance and provide employees with constructive suggestions to improve their job performance.

Where management falls short is addressing poor performers. Just 29 percent of feds said that steps are taken in their work unit to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve.

That’s one area that the new Trump administration wants to see overhauled. Specifically, agencies are being directed to review and update their policies, procedures and guidance for addressing poor performance and conduct. Agencies should also review if their policies create unnecessary barriers for addressing poor performance.

For employees on administrative leave, agencies must determine whether those individuals should return to work, be assigned alternative duties, or be subjected to other appropriate action, up to and including removal.

Despite President Trump’s rhetoric about shrinking the federal workforce, Mulvaney said that’s not the only focus.

“I think it’s wrong to sort of paint with a broad brush and say, because we are going to be reducing the overall size of government as part of this, as consistent with our budget, that that means that everybody should just focus on who is getting fired,” he said. “That’s the wrong message to take from this. The right message is we’re trying to figure out a way to make the government more responsive and more accountable, and that means taking care of the people who are doing a good job.”

Visit GovLoop.com in the coming weeks for ongoing coverage about the administration’s plans for the federal workforce and insights from managers who are navigating these changes. 

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