Happy Workers Are Better Workers

Improving Labor-Management Relations in the Federal Government

If the National Council for Federal Labor-Management Relations is able to improve federal employee morale, it would be a boon for all Americans, writes Jitinder Kohli.

The Department of Health and Human Services is one of 47 agencies asked to pull together plans for improving labor-management relations in the federal government, which employs 2 million people. (AP/Alex Brandon)
The Department of Health and Human Services is one of 47 agencies asked to pull together plans for improving labor-management relations in the federal government, which employs 2 million people. (AP/Alex Brandon)

The newly formed National Council for Federal Labor-Management Relations met for the second time yesterday after being established following an executive order issued by the president last December. The council brings together deputy secretaries from five government departments with leaders of federal workforce unions, management associations, and labor relations agencies to establish a “cooperative and productive form of labor-management relations across the executive branch.”

This week’s meeting focused on scrutinizing the action plans that each government agency had been asked to prepare setting out what they would do to improve relations between labor and management. The executive order requires much-improved dialogue between labor and management representative asks each agency to establish forums that bring together these representatives.

But more conversations between labor and management are not an end in themselves. The executive order is clear that that the initiative’s main purpose is to improve agencies’ ability to accomplish their missions and deliver high-quality services to the public. It asserts that a more engaged federal workforce—one with high morale and job satisfaction—will help make that a reality. A more engaged workforce can also help better shape programs and policies and ensure buy-in to reform initiatives. And the council thinks that a better climate of labor-management relations can in turn help boost employee engagement (see sidebar).

This is a crucially important issue for the country. There are 2 million federal workers, and how these employees feel about their jobs can make such a difference. If employees enjoy their jobs and have high levels of morale, they will have a greater commitment to their work and go the extra mile in their jobs. And so whenever you visit a Social Security office, or telephone a government call center, you can expect a better quality of service.

Even if this initiative were to only make a difference at the margins, the benefits would be huge. A 1 percent productivity gain across the federal workforce is worth $1.5 billion a year. But more important than increased efficiency is the potential change in how Americans view government. It’s not hard to imagine that citizens would perceive the government more favorably if every interaction they have is one where the federal employees are committed to going the extra mile to make a difference.

The executive order required 47 agencies to submit plans, and 24 of those were approved at this week’s meeting. One plan singled out for praise was that of the Department of Health and Human Services. The plan sets out how HHS will use an existing forum for labor-management relations in order to drive forward the agenda across the department. It promises to adopt metrics for the state of management-labor relations and also on improving the quality of workforce life and delivering high-quality products and services to the American people. They will work to ensure that workplace disputes are resolved quickly and amicably, and wherever possible deploy alternative dispute resolution processes such as mediation between an employee and their supervisor.

HHS has made an impressive start. But even there, there is more to be done. They should decide how much improvement they want to see against the key metrics. And they need to develop a broad strategy to improve employee engagement. Part of that will require better discussion between labor unions and management, but the overall quality of management and leadership will also be important.

The latest data available on HHS staff perceptions shows that only 48 percent of staff said that their unit is able to recruit staff with the right skills, around 40 percent said that they feel promotions were based on merit, and less than a third of staff members feel that steps are taken to address a poor performer who cannot or will not approve. Tackling all of these issues requires skilled managers and leaders. They need to find ways to address skill shortages—perhaps through training or recruitment. They need to find ways to ensure that promotion is conducted on merit and seen to be so. And they need to find ways to ensure that managers know how to tackle poor performance and have the confidence to do so.

Other agencies have further to travel than HHS. One of the plans sent back by the council for further work was that of the Social Security Administration. The agency has some 65,000 employees across the nation, many of whom work in frontline customer facing roles, and it is particularly concerning that they have not proposed customer satisfaction as one of their metrics.

There is a great deal of work to be done to get these plans right, and even more to ensure that they are seen through. But the opportunity is phenomenal. The federal government is the largest employer in the nation, and this initiative would certainly be worth the effort if it were to fulfill its potential and help to improve morale, customer satisfaction, and productivity across federal agencies.

Jitinder Kohli is a Senior Fellow with the Doing What Works project at the Center for American Progress.

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Jitinder Kohli

Senior Fellow