How to manage under budget crunch, potential shutdown

Robert Tobias, Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University

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By Jolie Lee
Federal News Radio

Budget tightening and talks of a shutdown are creating a federal workplace environment where it’s easy for leaders to “hunker down” and stay in survival mode.

But federal managers must use these challenging times to re-evaluate how their employees meet the agency mission, said Robert Tobias, director of the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation and director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University, in an interview with In Depth’s Francis Rose.

As government continues to be funded on a continuing resolution at 2010 spending levels, and as leaders continue to have no answers about future spending levels, uncertainty and anxiety rule.

“The workplace is really in the trenches, and when people are in the trenches, in the survival mode, there’s no excitement, there’s no enthusiasm. No one’s looking forward,” Tobias said. “That’s a very bad place to be if you’re interested in improving performance.”

One mistake that many federal managers make is not identifying the problem and acknowledging it will be difficult to tackle it. Agencies now are faced with the problem of doing the same or more work with a shrinking budget.

Instead of identifying how services can be delivered more efficiently, some managers assume their employees can work harder and “suck it up,” Tobias said.

“Federal employees have been sucking it up for a long time,” Tobias said. “Unless the problem is named and new approaches are designed, developed and implemented, I think we’ll see declining services and even more complaining about federal employees and their failure to deliver.”

The federal government is not alone in its budget showdown. Lawmakers in some states, such as Wisconsin, are targeting public employees’ pension and health care benefits, core union issues.

The federal sector, however, is “uniquely positioned” in its labor-management relationship, Tobias said. A Dec. 2009 executive order by President Obama called for federal managers and unions to collaborate in improving the delivery of services to the public. One expected result of this order will be “hard data” that shows the role federal workers play in increasing government efficiency.

Tobias said he believes the data will show that a collaborative process is indeed improving the way government works.

“It has nothing to do with ideology; it has only to do with performance results,” he said.