Cancelling awards doesn’t help inspire feds keeping agencies open

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Federal senior executives have shouldered the day-to-day burden of keeping their agencies operating. They’ve ensured employees have the technology and protective products they need, and that mission delivery didn’t get interrupted. So what is the thanks they get? Cancellation of the Presidential Rank Awards that go yearly to 1% of them. This doesn’t sit well with American University management professor and Federal Drive with Tom Temin guest Bob Tobias.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Bob, having been a longtime observer of all of this, what’s your take on the cancellation of the Presidential Rank Awards?

Bob Tobias: I think it’s a terrible, terrible decision. I mean, very fundamentally, if you want good work, you acknowledge good work, and then it gets replicated. And in this case, the Senior Executive Service was responsible for taking a 2 million workforce that had about 85% to 90% in person online without loss of service. Now they accomplish that — to ignore that and to cancel awards recognizing that success I think is a terrible mistake.

Tom Temin: I was surprised at the justification coming from OPM, which is to say really coming from the White House. OPM was the issuer of it. But it said, well we have to concentrate on getting America back reopened. And that didn’t seem to be secretor to the idea of canceling an awards program where the nominations had already been in and I presume vetted by the committee.

Bob Tobias: The idea that you have to focus on getting the country reopened, many of the agencies in the federal government are important to making the economy come alive. And so to ignore their work, I can’t understand it, the justification makes no sense to me at all.

Tom Temin: Alright, looking at this from the standpoint of a senior executive, what do you ponder they might be thinking even if they’re not nominees?

Bob Tobias: Well I believe the members of the Senior Executive Service are really pledged to deliver service. And if I’m really working hard, and more importantly, if I’m really successful, the idea that my boss says no awards this year, I can’t imagine feeling uplifted, and when I go to work I want to contribute even more because I’m being ignored, I’m being ignored and my exemplary record is being downplayed. That can’t be a good thing Tom.

Tom Temin: I was looking into the notion of battlefield promotions, and it’s not that common a thing, and militaries have had it and have discontinued it and continued it again, including the United States. But in some ways, not to overdraw the parallel, there is the sense of battlefield recognition because of the strange situation the country has been in for all these months.

Bob Tobias: I think it is a battlefield in the sense time that these folks were asked to do something that had never ever been done before, and to do it virtually overnight — and they Did it. They did it and they did it successfully. And the reports are that the federal workforce is even more productive now than it has been in the past. Now that is an extraordinary achievement.

Tom Temin: And what about the idea of the bonuses because the PRA, there’s the presidential rank award, and then the Meritorious Service Awards, but the PRA people, the 1%, which is about what 80 people receive this award out of the 8000 SESers every year, they get about a third of their salary, which is, as I said, in my column published last week, it’s not like giving the head of Neiman Marcus millions before he declares bankruptcy. But could there be a way do you think to recognize people, and I wouldn’t even say withhold the award for now, but just delay it, because everyone else has got it previously and everyone subsequently will get it, so this year’s crop wouldn’t seem fair to get the award without the reward?

Bob Tobias: I agree with you, Tom. I mean, anything that can occur today delay the award or wait till next year makes sense. But failing to acknowledge the good work makes no sense.

Tom Temin: And switching gears here for a minute, there’s another workforce that is pretty well under a lot of pressure, and that is the Postal Service. And mail volumes are falling at the first class and home delivery level, rising rapidly at the package level. So they’ve got this disjointed system and a lot of efficiency problems, a lot of lack of overtime. What do you make of what’s going on in Postal Service and whether the management approach there is correct with respect to taking care of the people that actually work on the front lines?

Bob Tobias: Well I think that the Postmaster General initiated a short sighted cost cutting effort with very adverse long term consequences, because what he directed was that no matter what, whether or not all the mail that comes in a day can be delivered, people stop at the end of their shift, and then pick up what was left over on the first day and deliver it the second day. And then of course, we’re going to pick up the mail on the third day and the fourth day. So the result is going to be mail delivery is not going to occur on schedule as it has in the past, and the mantra in the Post Office– every day, every piece delivered — that’s over, that’s over now with this change. Now, the Postmaster General wants to eliminate over time and create efficiencies. Well eliminating overtime doesn’t automatically lead to creating efficiencies, and he has no plan to create efficiencies. So instituting this approach, which I believe is going to lead to a loss of trust by the public in the scheduled delivery of mail, which will mean counter-intuitively to the Postmaster General, fewer people will send first class mail, which will lead to Congress saying, let’s get rid of the Post Office.

Tom Temin: So what might be a better route to getting these efficiencies?

Bob Tobias: Well, obviously, the Postal Service has to be more efficient. Every organization has to continue to increase efficiencies, but that requires engaging the workforce. The workforce has to be part of providing options and alternatives to increase efficiencies, and they have been totally ignored in this effort. The Postmaster General came in, he made a proclamation and the proclamation will lead to decreased morale, decreased efficiencies, not increased efficiency. He has no plan.

Tom Temin: Interesting because we had one of the inspectors general from Postal Service on talking about package delivery operations in the processing, and they’re trying to get greater efficiency there. And most of the cost is labor, not fixed capital costs in the processing centers — and all of the recommendations had to do with training and human capital and workforce planning, none of the recommendations had to do with the technologies and techniques of sorting packages. So I think what you’re saying carries over to other operations in the Postal Service.

Bob Tobias: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean postal worker can only sort and deliver so many letters to so many places. And the same is true in those centers. So is the Postal Service going to increase in the technology necessary to increase efficiencies, or are the efficiencies going to come solely from decreased over time and an inability to deliver the mail on time? I think that’s a stark choice, and the Postmaster General has made the wrong choice.

Tom Temin: All right, we hope Mr. DeJoy is listening. Bob Tobias is professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. As always, thanks for joining me.

Bob Tobias: Thank you Tom.