For years I have read articles, listened to the pundits and politicians, and overheard many water cooler conversations about the lack of performance and accountability in federal agencies, the poor quality of managers and leaders, and so on. Having worked to help the government be more effective and efficient for almost 40 years, I have witnessed some of these things myself. But while this in no way defines most employees or managers, it is the squeaky wheel that gets the most attention. This attention becomes our perception, this perception becomes our prophecy.

The average age of a federal employee is pushing closer to the 50-year mark and less than 17 percent of workers are under age 35, pointing to the facts that people are working longer and fewer young people are entering government. Civil service reform discussions have for years focused on streamlining hiring and modernizing the approach to employee compensation, never quite getting any of it done. Some believe federal employees are underpaid, others claim they’re overpaid. Maybe there is just too much noise in the system for some to regard federal employment as a great place to work. Perhaps we need to hit the reset button and take a hard look at what is right.

Let’s begin with a basic premise: To obtain a job, you must possess a skill set, or at least the aptitude to develop the skills needed. Employment then becomes a form of contract. The employer agrees to pay the employee money and benefits in exchange for job performance consistent with defined requirements and standards. This should be obvious. However, in today’s environment we need to add a second premise: In a rapidly changing world, jobs and organizations must continually evolve, grow, and adapt to be effective. This applies to government, not just the private sector.

It should be easy, right? Unfortunately, it’s not. Achieving the following three things would go a long way toward improving the performance and accountability of federal employees.

1. Managers must manage. It takes specific skills to supervise employees and manage programs, just as it does to be a nurse, an engineer, or perform virtually any other job. Leaders must select managers who demonstrate the capacity to manage and supervise. If managers are doing their jobs, it should be apparent in the results—mission achievement and consistency of performance with the right resources. Managers and supervisors must articulate expectations clearly, provide feedback, address issues, insist on quality and timely performance, develop staff and recognize performance. Further, if the operating systems are well defined, the culture is strong, and employees are respected and effective, then an organization could perhaps function with fewer managers.

2. Employees must regard their responsibility. Employees likewise should exhibit the skills and take on the responsibility of performance against the requirements and standards of the role and organization, regardless of the capability of the management above them. Employees should take responsibility for improving job performance, work processes, and quality. In addition, employees should be willing to evolve with the organization and within the given profession. They should contribute to making things better, align with and celebrate the culture, help train new employees, and hold each other accountable.

3. Leaders must set clear direction and advance the organization. Senior executives (including political appointees) must respect the organization they lead and guide it towards quality mission performance for the American people. Organizations must evolve—this may require performing in new ways; developing new programs; expanding, eliminating, or reducing existing programs; or shifting the mission. It should be done with forethought and consideration, evidence, and realigning resources and staff in ways that are efficient and effective, transparent, honest, and thoughtful. Investments must be made, risk tolerated and managed, and return on investment realized.

The civil service must be reformed to reflect the world we live in, attract and retain the best, and get the most out of the resources available. Everyone, while deserving respect and consideration, must be oriented toward serving the American people using precious financial resources. While this may sound blindly optimistic, it forms the foundation for what needs to be done. Don’t allow obstacles to stop you. Have the tenacity and grit to earn your paycheck, and do the right thing for the American people. Perhaps a simplified view with a dose of Pollyanna can go a long way.


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