How to improve the performance of the federal workforce

Civilian agencies need to take a cue from the Defense Department and begin focusing their employees on mission, not process, according to one reader.

Civilian agencies need to take a cue from the Defense Department and begin focusing their employees on mission instead of process, according to one reader.

The reader was responding to a recent FCW Insider blog post about the federal workplace. In recent months, numerous readers have posted comments suggesting that some federal employees have become so frustrated with the federal bureaucracy that they just stop trying to get anything done.

“The issue is not improving the workforce; the issue is improving the capability of the government to execute its mission,” writes a reader from Washington.

During recent decades, the federal government has slowly hampered the ability of federal managers and employees to carry out even simple tasks such as managing office space or ordering equipment, according to the reader. The same is true with more complicated responsibilities such as measuring and rewarding performance.

“We need to change the operating model in government to focus on mission accomplishment,” the reader writes. “DOD made this change years ago in that they understand that the military industrial base is made up of the branches, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the companies that service military in many forms. DOD looks to the entire organization to accomplish the mission. The rest of the federal agencies need to make this switch.”

Here is a sampling of other comments we have received (comments are edited for length, style and clarity).

Until lack of performance is dealt with by management and leadership, we will continue to cultivate this type of environment. I for one would be happy to see a firing spree and see how that motivates other feds to do their jobs.
— tough-manager

Suggestion: Give employees the opportunity to advance their careers (and salaries) while staying in a job that they like and are good at. … Many organizations could do with a good housecleaning. But even if you are fortunate enough to get one of those rare individuals who is bright enough and cares enough to get the organization running well, they will move on to their next assignment and things will go back to the way they were. Why not allow that rare individual to remain in that position, but still continue to be compensated as if they were being promoted to a higher position? Why must all organizations continue to operate under the Peter Principle and promote people to their own level of incompetence?
— Anonymous

We will not address whether innovation is possible or desirable on a global level; in some situations it is desirable and in others it is not. The biggest problem with innovation is developing an understanding within an organization that not all innovations will work out of the box; that is okay: It is better to try and fail than not to try. We also need to track innovations that we make to see if we can continue to improve after the initial exciting implementation of a new approach.
— Anonymous

I've complained about coworkers sleeping at their desks. Does management make a point to 'run' down the aisles once a day? No! So, when I see a co-worker sleeping, I call their phone! That wakes them up. Sometimes, you just have to take matters into your own hands. Management is either too mired in meetings or does not have the skills to effectively deal with staff, so I'll do it!
T (Baltimore)

As explained in the earlier blog post, our goal is not just to diagnose the problem, but to identify potential fixes. Here are a few issues to consider:

  • Is innovation feasible in the federal workplace? For that matter, is it desirable?
  • To what extent can individual employees engineer change within the given constraints?
  • How can career feds work effectively with political appointees to provide a semblance of stability and to maintain momentum on key programs?

Let us know what you think.