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The Public Manager

Successfully Managing Federal Rightsizing Initiatives

As federal managers face an austere funding climate, headquarters-mandated restructuring initiatives are inevitable. Field managers can best advance their proposals by providing data-driven analyses.

winchell
Federal managers can anticipate mission changes, organizational restructuring, and austere budgets in fiscal year 2013 and beyond. The challenge will be to incorporate these into headquarters-mandated mission changes while creating and maintaining high-performing subordinate teams.

The most successful managers will understand headquarters' reality and be prepared to participate in decision making. They must provide well-reasoned alternatives aligned to established metrics and program assessment criteria.

How can you ensure "field reality" is incorporated into headquarters rightsizing decisions? Five areas can guide us:

  1. understanding agency rightsizing guidance
  2. presenting your current reality
  3. addressing headquarters assumptions
  4. identifying your optimal organization
  5. gaining employee acceptance.

Understanding Agency Rightsizing Guidance

Any headquarters guidance on "rightsizing" of field operations will propose either increases or decreases in the amount of work already performed or changes to mission, functions, or tasks that require new competencies. Step one will be to determine whether the proposal is a transfer of work or a transfer of function.

Transfer of Work (TOW)

TOW is an informal term some agencies use to signify movement of positions between organizations when both already perform that type of work. TOW can involve local or geographic transfers. Employees have no specific rights under law to transfer with their position to another location. TOW will likely involve proposals for staff augments without significant restructuring of the gaining organization.

Transfer of Function (TOF)

A transfer of function takes place when a function ceases in one competitive area, and moves to one or more other competitive areas that do not perform the function at the time of transfer, according to the Office Personnel Management (OPM). The incumbents of affected positions at the time of geographic transfer have defined rights to move with their position.

Managers gaining mission and workforce as a result of TOF must comply with law and regulation and may have little to say about who is assigned to an augmented position. TOF involves changes to mission, functions, and tasks, which will likely affect workload, organizational structures, internal processes, and required position competencies at the gaining organization.

Presenting Your Current Reality

In developing restructuring proposals, agency headquarters staff will extract data from their human capital and other databases. Managers would do well to ensure that the data agency planners extract accurately reflects organization structures, active positions, and current competency requirements. Areas for particular attention include

  • Position description (PD) accuracy. In 1988 OPM discontinued the requirement to do random samples of the accuracy of PDs. The downsizing of agency human resources offices in the 1990s as part of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPRG) reduced staff oversight of PD accuracy. The result was that a high percentage of federal PDs and organizational structures build into databases are outdated. It is essential to review assigned PDs and ensure changes are captured in the appropriate database. This information will be used to establish competitive levels.
  • Lack of well-defined competitive levels. The U.S. Code at 5 CFR 351.403(a)(1) states in part: "Each agency shall establish competitive levels consisting of all positions in a competitive area which are in the same grade (or occupational level) and classification series, and which are similar enough in duties, qualification requirements, pay schedules, and working conditions so that an agency may reassign the incumbent of one position to any of the other positions in the level without undue interruption."
    OPM defines "without undue interruption" as when "the agency places two similar positions (such as same grade, classification series, or work schedule), in the same competitive level when the position descriptions for the two positions show that an employee in either one of the positions needs no more than 90 days to be able to perform the key tasks of the other position."
  • Inaccurate competitive levels. It is rare for separate competitive levels to be established in an agency's database within the same title, series, or grade even if the 90-day requirement is not met. Inaccurate competitive levels may ultimately result in unqualified personnel being moved to new positions.
    Step one is to ensure that your databases reflect current reality.

Addressing Headquarters Assumptions

Four consistent themes have emerged in recent Congressional hearings and in think-tank and government reports that will affect whether agency headquarters will deem restructuring proposals as meeting presidential and congressional mandates.

Federal Organizations Are Inefficient

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama asked for fast-track authority to expedite federal reorganizations. That President Obama feels the need to reorganize after 20 years of reform initiatives in the form of the total quality movement, Gore's NPRG in the 1990s, and President George W. Bush's President's Management Agenda should be troubling to federal managers. The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA, both 1993 and 2010 iterations) requires agencies to report strategic plans, annual performance plans, and results giving agency leaders a wealth of general budget and performance data upon which to judge the validity of field alternatives to their rightsizing proposals.

Federal Employees Are Overpaid

In January 2012 the Congressional Budget Office addressed federal civilian compensation finding "Overall, total compensation for federal employees was about 16 percent higher, on average, than total compensation for measurably similar workers in the private sector."

Many Federal Positions Are Over Graded

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In the last comprehensive study of position classification accuracy in 1983 "OPM estimated that 14.3 percent of the GS workforce was over grade and 1.5 percent was under grade. The Washington, D.C., classification error rate was more than 30 percent. The percentage of high-grade positions at the GS-13 level and above increased by 10.05 percent between 1990 and 2006.

It's About Outcomes, Not Outputs

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines productivity as outputs-inputs. For 40 years writers have emphasized that "outcomes" are equally important in defining public-sector productivity. Is international security (outcome) a result of the number of planes purchased and foreign aid given (outputs) or a much more complex integration of multiple influences including global issues of health, food availability, the environment, or political instability? The clarity of the fit between outputs and outcomes may well provide a reality check as to whether agency budgeters will increase, decrease, or maintain existing resource levels.

Identifying Your Optimal Organization

After correcting errors in the current database and understanding headquarters priorities, the next step is to develop a strategy for incorporating data on workload measurement, workforce utilization, position management, and human capital program requirements into your proposed optimal organization.

Workload Measurement

At the same time agencies were reducing staff overhead positions as part of NPRG initiatives in the 1990s, the Internet significantly changed the nature of work throughout the federal government. Work measurement metrics are largely lacking or outdated, particularly for work requiring the application of "intellectual capital."

Whether outdated or not, headquarters may recognize and use established metrics as a quantitative measure for establishing new staffing levels that must be accepted or alternatives provided as part of the restructuring process.

Workforce Utilization

It is not unusual for it to take between 90 and 120 days to fill a federal vacancy from the time a position is vacated until a new incumbent reports onboard. Unless "over hire" positions are authorized proportional to the vacancy rate, recruitment delays will always result in onboard count being less than authorizations. Managers need to address this issue in their analyses to headquarters or face the possibility that resource planners will proportionally reduce the number of positions authorized.

Position Management (PM)

At a minimum, PM involves structuring organizations to avoid unnecessary levels of supervision (layering), or the inappropriate dividing up of the highest graded work to support higher grades than are necessary to accomplish the work (fragmentation).

Many agencies have no formal position management programs beyond an instruction that says to use resources efficiently. Typical metrics for judging PM effectiveness are supervisory ratios, average grade, and percentage of "high-grade" positions at the GS-13 (or GS-14) level and above.

The effectiveness of local PM programs can vary markedly even within an agency. At best position classifiers, labor budgeters, and human resources staff collaborate to provide line decision makers with options for making the best use of their workforce. More typically, the budget analyst responsible for writing labor budget and full-time equivalent justifications does his or her best to convert critical management priorities into budget justifications with only limited assist from other staff specialists.

Human Capital Program Requirements

Agency human capital programs are evaluated by application of the Human Capital Assessment and Accountability Framework (HCAAF). The servicing human capital staff may or may not have documentation of use in developing rightsizing proposals depending upon how aggressively their programs have been aligned to HCAAF requirements.

Two HCAAF "systems" may provide recent data of particular interest to headquarters planners. The strategic alignment system "focuses on having a human capital strategy with mission goals and organizational objectives." A strong local strategic alignment system includes human capital and workforce planning strategies.

The talent management system emphasizes the establishment of competency requirements for mission-critical occupations (MCOs, which are likely already listed in agency databases) as a means of targeting recruitment and retention programs toward specific objectives. Managers supervising employees with labor union representation should consult with their servicing human resources specialist responsible for labor relations early in the process. Federal law provides considerable flexibility to managers in restructuring work.

Establishing a strategy for pursuing a best-case
scenario by integrating disparate staff analyses and identifying specific tasking for data collection and integration to fill in any missing pieces at the beginning will avoid confusion and wasted effort as events unfold.

Gaining Employee Acceptance

Studies of NPRG restructuring initiatives in the 1990s found that agencies overall complied with regulatory requirements relative to TOF and reduction-in-force. However, they were less effective in assimilating their new staff into restructured operations. The anxiety of change will be compounded by the dissonance between employee perceptions and headquarters mandates. The following are recommended for focusing new teams on their changed mission:

  • Communication. In the best private-sector companies restructuring involves meticulous planning and rapid implementation with intense communications to staff identifying the why, how, and who of the restructuring process. The timelines are longer in federal restructuring initiatives but the basics remain the same. It is essential to communicate accurate information rapidly and correct inaccurate rumors to the extent possible.
  • Leadership. Workers affected by restructuring expect honest communications and clear direction from their leadership. It is imperative to clearly define the new goals and explain how they will be achieved, including developing training programs and transparent process improvements to ensure employees have the tools to excel. Listening to good ideas without being co-opted by employee requests to explain to headquarters why their decisions were wrong and should not be implemented is a difficult but essential balancing act.
  • Motivation. Effective motivation initiatives create an environment where people believe they will be judged on performance and not friendships with the boss; reinforce positive behaviors through a variety of monetary and non-monetary recognition; and identify key competencies for new mission-critical occupations ensuring that employees receive the necessary classroom, mentoring, and on-the-job training to succeed.

Headquarters planners will listen to data-driven analyses that show a commitment to improving efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Data-driven recommendations that transparently explain the basis for decisions greatly enhances the communications process. They also demonstrate strong proactive leadership and the ability to support future broad, highly complex change initiatives.

TW
About the Author

Tim E. Winchell Sr. is a member of The Public Manager Board of Editors.

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