How the Trump administration can improve its relationship with federal employees

President Donald Trump has signaled for big changes to the federal bureaucracy, including a 90-day hiring freeze for the civilian workforce, that have prompted backlash from federal employees.

Just one month into his administration, more than 80 “alt-government” Twitter accounts have sprung up, claiming to speak for disgruntled federal employees at their agencies, while a number of high-profile leaks have rankled the White House political leadership. But despite the rocky start, Chris Lu, the deputy secretary of the Labor Department under President Barack Obama, says listening to the career federal workforce can ensure campaign promises translate into actionable policy.

“The best way… to implement the policies you want to implement is by talking to the career civil servants who have been running those programs,” Lu told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

According to the Partnership for Public Service’s tracker, the Senate has confirmed 14 of Trump’s political appointees, while another 20 nominees are pending. While the administration’s rollout of Cabinet confirmation has matched the pace of his most recent predecessors, the Senate has yet to confirm a deputy secretary, who often serves as an agency’s chief operating officer, and manages the back-office functions like human resources and IT.

“Those are the folks that you really want to get — people who understand how to run government agencies, because it is not like running a business,” Lu said. “There’s a reason why you can’t hire and fire employees at will, that you can’t promote whoever you want, that you can’t contract whoever you want, and that you’ve got a very powerful force in Congress that is controlling the purse strings and is dictating what oversight happens.”

Lu said he doesn’t blame federal employees for expressing their concerns publicly,  and called on incoming agency leadership to hold department-wide listening sessions to understand issues affecting the workforce.

“I’m a firm believer that employees need to implement the policies of political leadership,” Lu said. “I do think we are seeing an unprecedented level of dissent among federal employees because this is a very unusual presidency,” which Lu said included fiery rhetoric aimed at federal employees.

Improving employee morale at Labor Department

When former Labor Secretary Thomas Perez arrived in 2013, the Labor Department ranked 17th out of 19 large agencies for employee engagement, according to the Office of Personnel Mangement’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Lu said listening sessions with career employees played a huge role in revamping the agency’s morale problem. Labor was named the most-improved agency two years in a row, and now ranks at number six.

“We did that by implementing a full-court press to listen to our employees, find out their best ideas of not only how we could improve the department’s programs, but how we could also improve their work-life balance, the policies we could take within the department to improve how we acted,” Lu said.

For the Labor Department, that meant catching up to other agencies in terms of teleworking, and updating its personnel policies to allow more flexible work arrangements. But it also meant minor office conveniences, like installing WiFi throughout its headquarters building.

“One of the simple steps that somebody asked was, ‘Hey, why isn’t there a microwave in the cafeteria at the Department of Labor?’ and we said, ‘We don’t know why, but let’s put one in there,'” Lu said.

All of this was done in the Frances Perkins Building, which along with the Housing and Urban Development headquarters, has often ranked as one of the ugliest office buildings in Washington, D.C. Before leaving office, Perez and Lu made the first steps in seeking out a new office building for the department.

“We realized that as many improvements as we could make, we were still limited by the fact that we had a 40-year-old, decrepit building that didn’t heat and cool well, that unfortunately has far too many rodents running around the place. We made dramatic steps, but we made those steps by listening to our employees first.”

Recommendations for the Trump administration

When it comes to implementing policy, the career federal workforce is the first line of defense. Including them into the policy discussion, Lu said, helps ensure that the rollout is seamless.

“Every president comes in with new policy positions. That is the dynamic that makes our government strong, and it is the responsibility of the career civil service to provide the best advice and to implement and execute the president’s policies,” Lu said.

One case study in that not happening, he said, was the president’s “travel ban” executive order, which created uncertainty among the Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection agents at airports left to interpret it.

“By all accounts, that was a proposal that was not run through the agencies that would be implementing that,” which included DHS, as well as the State and Defense departments. “Those civil servants might have disagreed with the overall policy, but they could have ensured that it better carried forward what the president  was trying to do.”

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