November 2015
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The Public Manager

The Remaking of the FLRA

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

An agency-wide turnaround led by Chairman Carol Waller Pope revived engagement levels and organizational culture.

The Federal Labor Relations Authority, an independent administrative federal agency, was created in 1978 to promote stable, constructive labor relations that contribute to a more effective and efficient government. In 2010, the FLRA's Best Places to Work score skyrocketed 250 percent, moving it from last among small agencies at 32nd place in 2009 to 20th place in 2010. This was the largest percentage increase ever in the Best Places score of federal agencies.

The significant improvement in job and organizational satisfaction among FLRA employees was nothing less than a total shift in culture at the agency, which began under the leadership of Chairman Carol Waller Pope in the winter of 2009, when the agency had just 114 employees. Amid a major work backlog and staff shortage, FLRA leaders declared fiscal year 2010 as the "Year of the Employee" and focused on improving culture and morale through transparency and accountability.

FLRA leadership focused on empowering employees to make decisions. Pope held all-employee town hall meetings and included the FLRA's regional offices around the country. She also collaborated with employees at all levels to improve equipment and technology, and spearheaded a revamped website that provides greater access to information.

The efforts have paid off handsomely. The FLRA's Best Places Effective Leadership score soared from just 29.7 in 2009 to 64.7 in 2010. That represented a 418 percentage increase in the attitude of employees toward their senior leaders, a 144 percent jump in employee sense of empowerment, and a 131 percent increase in employee views about the fairness of the leadership.

The Public Manager recently spoke with Pope about the importance of revitalization, reinvention, and re-engagement.

You took over as chairman of the FLRA at a time when the agency was underperforming and in crisis. What, in your view, were the challenges that existed at that time? What was the culture like?

A major challenge was a feeling at the FLRA that employees weren't informed about the direction of the agency. They just knew we weren't doing what we used to be doing. And we weren't processing as many cases, so we weren't meeting our performance targets.

The culture had become one of "don't ask questions." In the absence of information sharing from the top, employees were filling in the spaces with misinformation and operating on misperceptions. And they were leaving in droves because they weren't sure about the future of the agency. Basically, everything was viewed with suspicion because leadership wasn't saying, "This is what we're doing and this is why we're doing it."

That was the culture at the FLRA when I became chairman. It didn't happen overnight, and it was a cultural shift sparked by an inability to complete our mission.

The FLRA was recognized as the most improved small agency in 2009, with an unprecedented 250 percent increase in employee satisfaction. How did you do it?

Part of the challenge was that employees didn't feel as though there was enough transparency by leadership. An employee very poignantly said to me, "You know, it's wrong if management and the current leadership think employees don't want to get on board with the new direction of the agency. We just need somebody to turn on the lights and tell us what that new direction is."

Who doesn't understand a plea to "Just tell us what you want us to be as an agency. Tell us what you want us to do"? So that was my first priority: Bring transparency back to the management of the agency and its mission.

Another big problem contributing to the culture was that we weren't getting cases out and delivering on our mission—so people were leaving. A focus on mission has always been the lifeblood of the FLRA. It has been my life's work, and that of many of our people. We are vested in the mission of the agency, and not being able to deliver on it was destroying morale.

Part of what was demoralizing to employees was that they would work on cases, but the cases didn't get out of the door, so the work process was stalled. Addressing that bottleneck got us moving forward again.

Also, I knew that we weren't issuing decisions because the FLRA members weren't voting in a timely way. That was one area where I had firsthand experience and could make an impact. I was able to commit to getting the voting members to establish—or re-establish—time targets and then make sure FLRA met them.

What were some of the first actions you took to turn FLRA around? Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give agency leaders in a similar situation?

We started by getting everybody in the room and defining what success would look like. That didn't necessarily mean having the same number of employees that the FLRA had 30 years ago, the same budget level, or the same organizational structure.

I knew that I had to get together with the employees' representative organization and find the "employee voice" to help me understand what we needed to do. I was removed from that employee experience because it had become a culture that didn't hold meetings; we didn't sit in a room and hear other voices and other perspectives. So, turning the agency around was as simple as trying to understand the priorities of employee representatives and managers. For instance, where were they lacking resources to get the job done?

We also knew that if we were going to get the agency back on sure footing, we had to fill vacancies and repair fractured relationships with the Office of Management and Budget. We had a tremendous backlog of cases and OMB was aware of it, so formulating a performance plan was the first step in increasing our budget to start to build those resources we needed.

Our administrative arena was another area that lacked resources. HR was a phone number, a contractor. There was no resident HR in the building, so we brought HR back in-house. We knew that part of what's important to every employee is their pay, their benefits, and getting sound advice. This change was not just for existing employees, but for the 20 or 30 vacancies that the FLRA had to fill. We could not fill these without human resource expertise—without people who knew how to address the gaps in the workplace, how to bring federal employees on board, and how to meet targets with respect to diversity.

Finally, there were real infrastructure needs. For example, we had to deploy a new performance management and appraisal system. And some of those infrastructure holes were gaping, so it was a matter of ordering these priorities.


Part of the reason that you were so successful in engineering an agency turnaround is that you were able to galvanize a team of workers with deep experience at the agency—in some cases, that included people who had left and returned to help you rebuild. Why do you think those people were willing to help you? What motivated them to stay or come back to FLRA?

Not everything was rocket science. Not everything needed a 10-point plan, consultants, or structural change. You could look at the Best Places survey results and know that employees felt that they weren't informed. I also knew this from anecdotal information, as well as from how I felt as an employee.

We took actions to help current employees think that management did care about them and drew others back to the agency. We encouraged employees to identify their needs, and we included employee input in everything—and we still do. That is the way that we do business, and it's now part of our culture. For instance, we started with something very simple that didn't cost anything: a weekly employee newsletter.

The other part of it was having the infrastructure to accomplish the mission. We wanted to be able to tell employees, "We're going to give you the tools. We're going to have functioning HR. We're going to fill vacancies." By building the infrastructure, as well as learning from employees about their needs and being honest about whether we could meet them, we were solving the largest part of the problem.

But we weren't getting millions of dollars, and we didn't have an open checkbook to make every change right away. Our turnaround relied on the FLRA prioritizing small issues that we needed to address so employees could get their jobs done. When you deliver on that promise, it builds a new culture and a new environment—and people want to be a part of it.

You began the FLRA's turnaround in 2009 by declaring that the theme for the future was "Revitalization, Reinvention, and Re-Engagement." Why did you coin this vision and how is it going—six years later?

This was an internal and an external message. The infrastructure improvements we made, such as changes to the performance management system, modifications to HR, and improvements to communication and transparency, were essential pieces of our revitalization.

The reinvention part was to revise our regulations to institutionalize dispute resolution and facilitation—something that had not been done before. Our road to reinvention meant that we learned how to use technology to meet needs that weren't being met, and we introduced innovation. More importantly, we re-engaged employees and our customers by going out and delivering the services we were best at delivering.

Six years later, the FLRA is still looking for ways every day to deliver on our mission more effectively and identify the actions that will help employees do their jobs. That's the most important lesson from the FLRA: You can never grow complacent and disengage from that process. As an agency—and as an agency leader—you must continue to be current. You must continually reinvent.

More From Carol Waller Pope

In a session of The Public Manager Forum during the 2015 Government Workforce Conference, Carol Waller Pope, discussed her role in leading the dramatic turnaround in culture and employee engagement at the FLRA. Watch the video.

About the Author

Robert Tobias teaches courses in public sector leadership in the Key Executive Leadership Programs. He also teaches facilitation and team development, conflict management and alternative dispute resolution, and managing labor management relations. Finally, he is the Director of the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation which brings together members of Congress, political appointees, career federal executives, union leaders, consultants, and academics for the purpose of resolving difficult public policy implementation issues. President Clinton nominated and the Senate confirmed him for a five-year term as a member of the Internal Revenue Service Oversight Board. Tobias received the Paul P. Van Riper Award from the American Society for Public Administration “In recognition of his outstanding contributions to both the theory and practice of public administration” and the Warner Stockberger award from the International Public Management Association for Human Resources for “outstanding contributions in the field of public sector personnel management at the federal level.” He has also been elected as a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. Tobias was selected by Thomas Ridge, secretary, Department of Homeland Security, and Kay Coles James, director, Office of Personnel Management to the Human Resource Management System Senior Review Advisory Committee.

About the Author

Michele Rhoades is the former of the Healthcare and Government communities at ATD, as well as the former publisher of The Public Manager.

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