Two key themes emerged at this morning’s Town Hall with top Obama administration officials in honor of Public Service Recognition Week: First, the public often doesn’t understand or appreciate all the things federal employees do for them. And second, that’s partly because a hostile or indifferent press corps only appears interested in federal workers when they throw extravagant Vegas conferences or hire a couple of prostitutes.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Health and Human Services Director Kathleen Sebelius, and acting General Services Administration head Dan Tangherlini spoke with news anchor Cokie Roberts at the Partnership for Public Service’s headquarters today about the difficulties faced by federal agencies trying to spread their message.
The media criticism began with Sebelius, who said recruiting and retaining talented workers “is particularly tough when people are working a zillion hours a day, paid well below market value, and trashed day in and day out in the news media and told that they are incompetent. … [Stories about selfless feds, such as those recognized with Service to America medals] always get page 30, bottom left-hand corner [placement], one nanosecond and they’re gone. So having a little more press balance would really be helpful.”
LaHood followed up on her comments later after lauding the cooperation between Homeland Security and Amtrak to provide security for commuters, as well as the Transportation Security Administration’s airport security:
We know it’s not going to get the headlines unless something goes wrong, but so many things go right. That’s why you don’t see that many headlines about it. Because a lot of stuff goes right. … Think of the good work that’s gone on for more than 10 years by TSA federal employees. Not one plane has been brought down by a terrorist. We’d all love to have a track record like that.
Sebelius advised agencies to reach out to media organizations throughout the nation, beyond the Washington Beltway:
Sometimes it’s easier, I find, to get outside of DC and shine a bright light on a regional office for work that’s going on. Oftentimes, the press is cynical inside the Beltway and end up on a “gotcha” kind of media. The local press is often delighted to print those stories [about employees doing good jobs and delivering services].
The press wasn’t the only villain criticized by the Cabinet members. LaHood said excessive partisanship and gridlock in Congress is hurting feds, most of whom come to government to serve a higher purpose. “Unfortunately, what we have in at least one house of Congress is people who came to do nothing,” LaHood said, referring to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. “And that’s basically what they’ve been doing for the last year and a half. I know what good Congress can do when they put their minds to it.”
Sebelius also criticized “people who have sought public office to really dismantle government. Anything involved with the government has to be bad. Whether it’s cutting out education funding, or health programs, the things that typically were seen as public good, public service, we come together to do the things we can’t do one at a time. That attitude, unfortunately, has changed among some of the people who now are serving in office, and see that any progress made on anything by government is inherently wrong.”
And the annual budget process ends up a victim of the gridlock in Congress, Tangherlini said, which makes things tougher for the feds who have to actually get things done.
Napolitano also criticized Congress’ inability to get budgets passed and the recurring threat of a government shutdown:
Oftentimes we’re operating without [a budget]. We’re trying to guess what it’s going to be. There’s no CEO in the country that has to deal with the sort of uncertainty we have about budgets, and coming right up to the edge of closing down the government — that’s not a morale builder for the federal workforce.
Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., is usually numbered among the federal workforce’s best friends on Capitol Hill. But this morning, he evidently decided it was time for a little tough love.
When feds get a new assignment, they “hire a consultant,” Moran told participants at a Partnership for Public Service event. “They don’t take it on themselves.”
“We’ve got too many people, even in managerial positions, who are protecting their comfort zone,” he continued. “I’m really discouraged because these are good people that can do far more than they are attempting to accomplish. They’re worth more than they really give themselves credit for.”
“But when something new is introduced, they look somewhere else.”
The occasion was the Partnership’s official release of a report on the Senior Executive Service. In attendance at the non-partisan organization’s downtown D.C. offices were federal employees, reporters and—yes—consultants. The report’s main finding–that the SES has not lived to Congress’s original vision of a mobile cadre of top civil servants–was one that Moran robustly endorsed.
“We need people who are looking for new challenges, who know what needs to be done, who are not satisfied with what a federal agency is achieving today,” he said. Not long after, Moran was off, with plans to address a noontime National Treasury Employees Union rally on his schedule.
Yesterday’s Congressional Budget Office report on federal employee compensation is already renewing the debate over the federal-vs.-private sector pay gap. The report — which concluded federal employees are compensated 16 percent higher than private sector workers — prompted the conservative Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute and the libertarian Cato Institute to take victory laps.
Heritage’s Jason Richwine and James Sherk quibbled with CBO’s methodology (CBO’s findings generally tracked with Heritage’s conclusions that feds receive higher pay and benefits than the private sector, though CBO said the difference was much slimmer). But overall, they view the report as vindication and used it to swipe at Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, federal unions, and other left-leaning organizations who criticized Heritage’s assertions. Said Richwine and Sherk:
Heritage’s prior critics, however, must now either redirect their same harsh invective at the CBO or — much better — acknowledge the validity of our conclusions.
The American Federation of Government Employees is choosing the former. In a statement released last night, AFGE National President John Gage blasted the study as “pointless,” “absurd,” “academic and irrelevant.” Gage said:
It’s that time of year again.
Starting today, the Partnership for Public Service is accepting nominations through Jan. 18 for the annual public service awards, known as the Sammies. The awards recognize civilian federal employees who have shown commitment to service and have made significant contributions in their fields.
Call to Service and Career Achievement are among the eight nomination categories.
Last year’s winners included two National Institutes of Health scientists whose research led to new cervical cancer vaccines, and an IRS employee, who developed the eFile system that drastically reduced the time it takes to provide tax refunds.
If there were ever a time for the federal government to recognize the value of new approaches and ideas, this would be it.
But at most major federal agencies, fewer than half of employees believe that’s actually happening, according to a survey analysis released today by the Partnership for Public Service.
The two exceptions were NASA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where more than 60 percent of respondents agreed that “creativity and innovation are rewarded.” At the three military services and 23 agencies, however, the comparable ratios were below 50 percent and at a couple—including the Transportation Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—they were below one-third.
At the bottom was the Securities and Exchange Commission, where just 28.4 percent of responding employees saw such incentives for innovation.
That’s the same SEC that’s picking up a slew of new responsibilities under the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul signed last year. In an email, spokesman John Nester touted the fact that–in response to another survey question–nearly 9 in 10 SEC staffers said they were “constantly looking for ways to do their jobs better.” The agency is “looking for ways to better encourage and reward them for that,” Nester added.
The analysis draws on data from last year’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which attracted responses from more than 250,000 full-time permanent feds. At every agency covered, overwhelming majorities of respondents said they were “constantly” looking for ways to do their jobs better. At most, more than half said that they felt encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things.
“We have a work force that is individually motivated to try new things to succeed and they’re not receiving either leadership or organizational support in trying to be creative and innovative,” Partnership President Max Stier said in a phone interview. “That’s a problem.”
The analysis singles out a half-dozen conditions–such as involving employees in decisions that affect their work–that help drive innovation. And probably managers at just about every federal agency would claim that they’re all for getting away from business as usual. So is there a disconnect between lip service and reality? What do you think?
The House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce just sent me the witness list for next week’s hearing on federal employees’ pay. Let’s just say this will be as close to Thunderdome as a federal pay debate can get.
In the blue corner: Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry and National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley. They stand by the government’s calculations that federal employees earn an average of 24 percent less than their private sector counterparts.
And in the red corner: James Sherk, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, and Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. To say they’re skeptical of the government’s pay gap estimations would be an understatement of criminal proportions.
The wild card will be Partnership for Public Service President Max Stier. The Partnership aims to encourage young people to pursue federal and other public service jobs, and has pointed out the flaws in studies purporting to show feds are vastly overpaid. But their experts also say that the government’s methodology for determining the pay gap is highly flawed, and have called for a major overhaul of the system. (OPM pledged to start studying the matter and come up with “ironclad” pay data almost a year ago, but nothing ever came of that.)
OK, maybe the steel cage match talk is a slight exaggeration. But it will be interesting to have the two sides come face to face for the first time. For more than a year, the debate over federal pay has played out in the press and through reports issued by think tanks, and we’re no closer to resolving this issue. We’ll see if both sides continue to dig in their heels and insist their way is the right way, or if they’ll start inching toward a new, transparent way of determining the pay gap that all parties can agree to.
The deadline to nominate your favorite public servants for a Service to America Medals award has been extended to Feb. 7.
This year’s awards include a new management excellence medal category for a top employee who shows superior leadership or management. Federal employee of the year, career achievement and call to service are among the other categories.
You can submit your nominations here.
I’m at the release event for the Partnership for Public Service’s 2009 “Best Places to Work” report, which measures employee satisfaction at agencies across the government. We’ve got a quick summary of the results, and you can view the whole survey (which contains lots of interesting data) here.
One interesting point: OMB director Peter Orszag just gave a quick speech, and he said this about the survey results:
We will be looking to include the results in the fiscal year 2011 budget process, because we should not just let this be a report that generates a one-day news story. It needs to be something that is built into the way we run government.
Orszag went on to say that OMB will ask the poorly-performing agencies to come up with a plan for improving their scores.
The Council for Excellence in Government, a nonprofit group that advocates for improving the government, announced today that it is shutting down on Feb. 15. Most of the Council’s programs and staff will be absorbed into the Partnership for Public Service. John Macomber, chair of the Council’s Board of Trustees, released a statement today that blamed the recession:
For more than 25 years, the Council has enjoyed a reputation for leadership and innovation and has served as a catalyst for constructive change at all levels of government. However, the current economic climate has made it extremely difficult to raise the funding required to continue and grow these vital programs. Moving these programs to the Partnership will improve efficiency, increase their impact and provide needed services to more government executives and organizations.
The Excellence in Government Fellows training program for mid-level federal careerÂ executives, which has trained more than 2,700 employees over the last 20 years, is one of the main programs moving to the Partnership. The Senior Advisors to Government Executives (SAGE) program will also move to the Partnership, as will the organization of Public Service Recognition Week each May.
The Council helped lay the groundwork for E-Government and the creation of the chief information officer position, organized town hall meetings between federal officials and members of the public, and released the so-called Prune Book every four years to profile top management jobs for new presidential appointees.
Samuel Heyman, the founder of the Partnership for Public Service, received the Presidential Citizens Medal in a White House ceremony today. Heyman founded the nonprofit in 2001 to try to improve the federal government and promote it as a good place to work as the Baby Boomer generation prepares to retire.
The citation Bush awarded Heyman reads:
As a lawyer, public servant and philanthropist, Samuel Heyman has acted on his steadfast devotion to our nation. By encouraging young leaders to answer the call of public service, he has helped promote a vibrant federal work force. The United States honors Samuel Heyman for his dedication to improving the efficiency, transparency and accountability of the federal government.
Bush also awarded medals to 23 other people, including Anne-Imelda Radice, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and Donald Powell, the White House’s former federal coordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding.