Federal Executive Boards unite Washington and the field

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

wfedstaff | June 4, 2015 9:46 am

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The 28 Federal Executive Boards across the country make no policy. They don’t implement laws or regulations. But the FEBs play a role integral to just about everything agencies do.

FEBs are hubs of communications, connecting Washington and the field.

“We help agencies collaborate, communicate and work together,” said Gwenne Campbell, the Atlanta FEB’s executive director. “We handle common things. For instance, we work with them on a table-top exercise to be sure everybody is of one accord in the event of an emergency. We provide skilled based training, which is common to agencies. We do the employee-of-the-year recognition award to give recognition to federal employees. We do a newsletter, so it’s those kinds of activities. Those things that every agency has a piece in — rather than every agency do things individually, we coordinate.”


Ear to the ground
The FEBs’ channel becomes a lifeline back to Washington during emergencies.

Campbell said during Hurricane Katrina in the late summer of 2005, the Atlanta FEB provided insight into both what was happening on the ground and what federal employees were facing.

“One of the things we did was pull together an all-information session with all of the agency heads to talk about what happened: ‘What are you doing? Do you hear what other people are doing?'” she said. “One of things that came out of that is while we were very focused on what we were doing for the people, there were real challenges for agency employees that we needed to address. They were not first responders, but they were expected to deliver a service. When they were impacted personally, too, this gave them a forum to talk about challenges and issues on local basis and we could record some of those needs to Washington.”

But while events such as Hurricane Katrina are unusual, the FEBs are called upon often to act as a conduit between Washington and the agencies in the specific area.

“We put people in touch with each other who have similar needs or similar requirements, and somebody may have a requirement that somebody else has already dealt with or they might be implementing something another organization might just be starting with and they don’t know what some of the pitfalls might be,” said Lisa Makosewski, the FEB executive director in Philadelphia. “We try to put them in touch with each other so they can learn from each other. It’s a lot of collaboration and communication, and just getting folks together so we can move forward.”

Local input on policy
The implementation of the new Telework Enhancements law is a perfect example of the role the FEBs play, she said.

Makosewski said the FEBs help smooth out the field offices’ transition to the policy developed by the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget.

The FEBs also help provide the field-level experience when it comes to developing those policies.

Makosewski said there are still agencies that are finding it difficult to implement the telework law and its regulations.

“You are trying to represent the interests of such a broad spectrum of experience and need that it’s often times difficult to make that work in one single policy,” she said. “A lot of time, policies will be forwarded to us comment prior to implementation. The FEB gets the request and we will distribute it to the agencies and ask them to provide comments.”

Campbell said her FEB only gets involved in policy discussions when OPM or another agency asks. She said OPM recently came to discuss the hiring reforms, and the Homeland Security Department discussed the National Incident Response Plan.

“We had a series of sessions where people came out to explain the [hiring] system,” she said. “It gave field people an opportunity to ask questions and get information that they could take back and factor into it.”

Shelley Metzenbaum, the associate director for performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget, came to Atlanta in July to discuss performance and personnel issues at a FEB meeting. Campbell said that type of interaction happens frequently whether it’s about policy development or senior officials wanting to learn more about feds outside of Washington.

‘Managing by magic wand’
Makosewski said even with the lines of communication open, policies sometimes miss the mark.

“My sense of things is there is a perception that things are a lot easier to implement than they may be,” she said. “The folks in Washington — whatever agency — the perspective from Washington is that a policy is created and that is fine. But the policy says here is what we will do, but not how we will do it. We aren’t putting a structure in place to make the policy work.”

Makosewski said it’s like managing by magic wand: “Let it be written, let it be said.” But the structure to support the policy isn’t in place and therefore field offices struggle.

Campbell said her goal is to make sure field offices have the general policy first. And when the headquarters sends out the specific implementation efforts, they have the background to make it happen more quickly.

Beyond policy, FEBs make calls for weather closures or when dealing with other emergencies.

Campbell says the FEB sends out alerts to agency heads through text messages, email and phone calls.Makosewski said the FEBS help agencies prepare for weather or other related disasters as part of an annual table top exercise. In Philadelphia, this year’s was called Liberty Down. The scenario was a pipe burst causing several floors to flood in a building and disabling the electrical and mechanical systems.

“We tried to get people to think through this, and how do you keep operations moving? How do you keep serving the public? How do you make sure your employees continue to be served? Can you run payroll?” Makosewski said. “Pretty basic questions and yet they have a great impact on whether or not you’ll still be able to do business. The exercise gives the organizations that participate the opportunity to look at these questions.”

She said the exercise helped agencies understand if their technology infrastructure could support the continuity-of-operations site and whether they could communicate with employees outside of the COOP site.

Campbell said over the years communication and reliance between Washington and the FEBs has grown considerably.

“We are getting better at listening and understanding it’s a team process and we work hand-in-hand. We toss that number around all the time about 85-to-88 percent of all federal employees are outside D.C.,” Campbell said. “I think more and more every time I’ve gone into Washington for a meeting I’m hearing that all the time. And at the FEB meetings, more and more agencies are beginning to come to our meetings to hear from us. I think we are making the case and I think they are receptive.”


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