New Congress ‘worst places to work’ hotline: right idea, wrong question

The new congressional tip line Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, launched last week offers federal employees a chance to tell his office directly about problems that contribute to dissatisfaction and low morale in their workplaces. Federal News Radio’s Emily Kopp reported emails to the tip line, TellMark@mail.house.gov will be treated as anonymous resources for congressional investigations of workplace satisfaction at agencies.” The tip...

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The new congressional tip line Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, launched last week offers federal employees a chance to tell his office directly about problems that contribute to dissatisfaction and low morale in their workplaces. Federal News Radio’s Emily Kopp reported emails to the tip line, TellMark@mail.house.gov will be treated as anonymous resources for congressional investigations of workplace satisfaction at agencies.” The tip line is the latest venue for feds to share problems they see at work. But at best, Meadows may not be asking federal employees all the right questions; at worst, he may be asking the wrong question altogether. I guess the good news is that, unlike most congressional efforts to collect information on operations in the executive branch, Meadows’ effort appears sincere. The bad news is, he continues to focus on the negatives, instead of balancing it with some — or any — positives.

In Depth host Francis Rose
And there are plenty of positives. Despite IRS Commissioner John Koskinen’s claims his agency is dramatically underfunded, another tax season has come and gone without reports of major snafus. The National Institutes of Health makes regular strides in its fight against a smorgasbord of diseases and disorders that mean life and death to citizens across the country, and around the world. Another week, month, year and longer has gone by without an attack on the homeland, thanks to the cooperation of myriad agencies across government, including federal, state, local, tribal and other jurisdictions. And I could go on and on. Of course there are problems. Some of them are high profile, like the Department of Veterans Affairs, Secret Service and others. Some are not as well known, and some may not be known at all. And certainly employees who see things going on that shouldn’t be going on, should be able to safely blow the whistle without fear of retaliation, unlike what it appears is going on at the VA and other places. But the focus on only the bad things the executive branch does sends an unfortunate message to both agencies and employees. The message Meadows sends is, “We only want you to get better by hearing what someone does wrong and punishing them.” It doesn’t tell anyone he cares about the places and people where things are working well, so others can learn from and replicate them. To compound the message that he only cares about the problem stories, Meadows introduced the tip line after his committee adjourned a hearing called “The Worst Places to Work in the Federal Government.” The lack of a hearing on the committee’s past or future schedule titled “The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” reinforces the perception of a lack of interest in recognizing progress and achievement at agencies. A sincere oversight regimen would include three main elements:

  • Tough but non-partisan reviews of the problems agencies have. No one I’ve found disagrees Congress should investigate problems like it has recently at the VA, Secret Service and other agencies. So far Congress has gotten the “tough” part right. The “non-partisan” part has been more elusive.
  • Recognition that not everything the government does is bad. Agencies may be gun shy about telling the Hill about their successes, for fear of having them ripped apart; or maybe there aren’t as many as I think. Either way, there is currently little to no recognition by Congress of jobs well done, let alone thoughtful study and oversight by members of those successes. One starting point could be that “Best Places to Work” hearing I mentioned above (that doesn’t exist yet). Bringing in the leaders of the agencies at the top of each of the categories, as the subcommittee did with the leaders at the bottom agencies last week, would demonstrate seriousness about taking workable techniques and replicating them.
  • Changing the language Congress uses to talk about agencies. One party is almost exclusively guilty of this. Unfortunately for feds, that party leads both chambers now. Homeland Security Department Secretary Jeh Johnson got it right, though, when he told the subcommittee before its hearing, “One of the ways that you improve morale is to stop continually telling my workforce that you have lousy morale.” One way the Republican Congress could run the government (or at least oversee the government) more like a business, is to set its workforce up for success, instead of for failure, by assuming it will succeed, rather than assuming it will fail.

An endorsement of even one success would go a long way to reassuring the executive branch that this Congress is serious about governing. Meadows says “There is at least one Democrat [his subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D- Va.)] and one Republican willing to look at what matters most to the hundreds of thousands of federal workforce employees that serve our public every day.” He can prove it by, as the old song said, “accentuating the positive.” And no one expects him to heed the song’s advice to eliminate the negative — just maybe balance it out a little bit. Of course, anybody can email the tip line, for any reason (hope his IT team has a good spam filter set up). I wonder what would happen if feds started emailing positive stories to TellMark@mail.house.gov, so his staff could get a real sense of the scale of positive-to-negative going on inside agencies? Such a body of work might help him find one or two more Republicans willing to join his effort to help federal employees.


Francis Rose is host of Federal News Radio’s In Depth radio show, which airs weekdays from 4-7 p.m. MORE COMMENTARY FROM FRANCIS ROSE: FY2016 budget: put up or shut up time for Congress After Denver hospital debacle, VA should leave building to the pros 3 reasons why new SES reform panel can succeed where others have not