As budget pressures increase and agencies must make tough decisions on programs to keep or to cut, employee morale and opinion may be the wild card in the effort.
So much so that the Office of Personnel Management changed its annual Employee Viewpoint Survey, said agency Director John Berry.
“If a manager asks his employee how things are going, obviously, the answer is probably, ‘Great!'” Berry chuckled. “But the employee, given that opportunity to give an answer to an anonymous survey might give a completely different answer. And that’s the answer we want. We want the honest answer.”
Employee feedback provides managers important insight to determine which programs are essential, and which are not. To help provide agencies this extra input, OPM expanded its annual Employee Viewpoint Survey poll to all federal workers.
In the past, the agency limited the questionnaire to about a third of employees. The Office of Management and Budget’s fiscal 2014 budget guidance detailed specific areas to reduce, including technology, travel and non-essential items.
“We have to be honest with the American people,” Berry told Federal News Radio before his keynote speech at the Asian American Government Executives Network leadership conference in Arlington, Va. “We can’t always do more with less. And sometimes the answer, when budgets continue to decline, is managers have to make tough calls.”
In their efforts to prioritize programs for retention and elimination, agencies should protect those that support their core missions and maximize mission-related services to the public. Leaders should place anything that does not fall into those categories high on the list for elimination.
But even as agencies seek ways to cut spending, Berry warned against taking the axe to training for employees.
“We can’t just throw people into very complicated situations that affect public health and safety without giving them the training to get the job done well,” he said. “In fact, it’s probably one of the most efficient expenditures you can make.”
But not all training requires formal classroom instruction, which can be expensive. Managers can employ mentoring, recruiting seasoned employees to share skills, lessons learned and best practices with newer workers, or employees who hope to climb the ranks of government.
“It is a critical, critical way for us to keep that knowledge transfer going,” Berry said during his keynote speech. “If you know someone is retiring, ask them” to consider adopting a new employee or potential successor to teach.
Mentoring can provide benefits for both parties. Berry recalled last year’s rocky re-launch of USAJOBS.gov. Frustrated users flocked to Facebook to post their complaints.
“Our senior folks didn’t know how to address this kind of crisis,” he said. “Our young folks stepped up. And because we had that diversity on our team, [they] said, ‘Wait a minute, we’ll do this.’ And they organized … a little war room — [a] 24 hour a day operation. Every Facebook comment got a response. And then they took it from an email response to a phone call, and the phone call until the problem was solved.”
Ultimately, it was just what OPM needed to put the website on track and satisfy users.
“We couldn’t have done it if we didn’t have the diversity on the team,” Berry said. “Of young and old, of people who had different skill sets and different approaches who could work together to get us through a crisis.”
In his final example of how mentoring benefits both parties, Berry explained what he gets out of it.
“I’m mentoring a couple of people now, and I get as much out of it as they do. It’s amazing to me, this generation. The speed and agility of their thumbs is unmatched,” he joked, referring to smart phones. “As you get older, obviously the things get smaller. … These kids can do it … blindfolded under the table. They don’t even have to look.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, 6 a.m.-10 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. region and online everywhere.
Tom also writes a weekly commentary. Subscribe to Federal Drive's daily audio interviews on iTunes or PodcastOne