Workforce reductions under government reorg could add to MSPB’s burden

The Trump administration’s government reorganization initiative and efforts to reduce the size of the federal workforce could mean more work for the Merit Systems Protection Board, the agency said.

“Workforce reductions could mean an increase in appeals involving furloughs, RIFs or early retirements through Voluntary Early Retirement Authority (VERA) and Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment (VSIP),” MSPB wrote in its fiscal 2017 report. “Legislative changes and budget reductions not only affect our adjudication functions, they also emphasize the need for strong merit rules and [Office of Personnel Management] review programs to ensure the federal workforce continues to be managed under the merit system principles and free from prohibited personnel practices.”

Processing more appeals could prove to be a tough burden for MSPB, which after a year still lacks a quorum and can’t decide on all cases until it gains at least one other presidentially-approved, Senate-confirmed board member.

Chairman and lone board member Mark Robbins described MSPB’s lack of quorum as the biggest challenge the agency faced in 2017.

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Robbins himself has weighed in on 750 matters, but those petitions for review are still pending until MSPB adds another board member.

“The number of cases grows each week,” Robbins said in the report. “This is the largest inventory of cases at headquarters awaiting member action in our history. It constitutes the largest number of cases awaiting action at the start of the future board members’ service.”

Those cases include petitions for review, and others such as requests to review regulations and actions at the Office of Personnel Management and original jurisdiction proceedings.

MSPB processed 6,028 cases in fiscal 2017, well below the 9,794 matters the agency processed during the previous year.  But comparing the last year with previous ones isn’t a fair representation of the agency’s work, MSPB said.

“Due to the lack of quorum for most of this [fiscal year], headquarters case processing statistics represent only slightly over one-quarter of the past quarter,” MSPB said. “Therefore, these data are not comparable to HQ case processing statistics in prior annual reports which covered data over the entire fiscal years.”

In addition, furlough cases had made up the majority of MSPB’s extra workload in 2014 and 2015, and by 2016, the agency had already adjudicated 99.5 percent of those pending furlough decisions.

The board itself decided 207 cases during the first three months of the fiscal year before it lost its quorum. MSPB field and regional offices processed 5,811 cases in 2017.

Agencies’ adverse actions made up an overwhelming majority of the initial cases that MSPB field and regional offices processed this past year.

The Office of Personnel Management brought the most cases before MSPB field and regional offices in 2017, where most of those appeals involve retirement determinations.

But after OPM, the Veterans Affairs Department filed the most appeals at 896.

The majority — 64 percent — of those cases were dismissed, while the remaining 36 percent were either settled or adjudicated, MSPB said.

Though the lack of a quorum is currently the agency’s biggest difficulty, Robbins noted that he’s also concerned by MSPB’s other human capital challenges.

Much of MSPB’s workforce is eligible to retire in the near future. About 22 percent of the agency’s employees are retirement-eligible in two years, including a quarter of administrative judges in the field and regional offices.

Regardless, MSPB must be “prepared to face external factors such as changes in law and jurisdiction and governmentwide reorganization leading to budget and workforce reductions,” Robbins said.

Employee engagement

MSPB is also responsible for reviewing and reporting on significant actions from OPM.

In its 2017 report, MSPB looked at how OPM administers the Federal Employee Engagement Survey — and whether the survey in its current iteration is well-positioned to prompt managers to make meaningful change to improve employee engagement.

Specifically, MSPB focused on the 42 percent of respondents to the 2017 FEVS, who said they believed the results of the survey would be used to make their agencies better places to work.

The low number concerned MSPB, which questioned whether the surveys in general were a valuable tool to improve engagement.

“When agencies evaluate survey data, they typically implement improvement strategies to address problem areas,” MSPB said. “However, it may take more than one year to experience change as a result of those strategies. If agencies try to assess or judge the results based on annual survey responses instead of longer term trends, they could reach misleading conclusions.”

In addition, MSPB proposed that the federal workforce may suffer from “survey fatigue.” Low FEVS participation rates may mean that federal employees are tired of taking these questionnaires, particularly if workers don’t believe their responses will make any meaningful change.

Instead, OPM should consider asking for legislative changes to the survey process, MSPB suggested.

But the agency advised that measuring engagement may become more important in the coming months and year, as employees are typically more satisfied when their agency’s outcomes and work environment changes for the better.

“Agency leadership should realize that employee engagement may suffer during workforce reshaping efforts simply due to employee fears of changes to may or may not be planned in the workplace,” MSPB wrote. “Management should be as transparent as possible regarding any planned workplace changes and should be as transparent as possible regarding any planned workforce changes and should effectively communicate to employees what the changes are and why they’re occurring.”