What Biden can learn from Obama — and Trump — about managing the federal workforce

The incoming Biden administration has plenty to learn from its predecessors about setting the tone, supporting productive labor-management relationships and usi...

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Ask longtime federal employees about a moment that defined their careers in government, and many will point to the address President H.W. Bush gave to top career leaders in 1989.

The former president addressed the Senior Executive Service within a week of his Inauguration Day. Senior executives who were there famously said they “would have walked on water” for the former president. His speech sent a message to everyone — including Bush’s new political appointees; they were all there for the same reason.

Since then, former President George W. Bush had addressed the SES twice. Former President Barack Obama eventually spoke to the SES, but he was criticized for waiting until halfway through his second term to make the address.

President Trump has not directly addressed the SES during his administration.

Labor leaders, former executives and other experts all say President-elect Joe Biden could draw on the lessons of the previous administrations in managing the federal workforce.

And though Biden can tap into his experience with the federal workforce from his time in the Obama administration, those eight years weren’t perfect, they said. No administration is perfect, and in some ways, each president’s workforce policies were often a reaction to their predecessor’s.

“Obama was not this windfall for federal employees in general, or labor unions in general,” said Steve Lenkart, executive director for the National Federation of Federal Employees. He cited the Obama administration’s hesitancy to address the SES as an example.

“We would love to see Biden establish those relationships with the federal civil service immediately, which we think he will because Biden came up through federal service,” Lenkart added.

Setting up those relationships with career executives and new political appointees early is critical, said Bob Tobias, a professor for American University’s Key Executive Leadership program.

“A president who sets that tone and models that behavior by actively speaking to and supporting the Senior Executive Service will have a better chance of leading to the kind of collaboration between political appointees and members of the SES,” he said.

Setting a workforce management agenda

Earning trust and support from the SES means a Biden administration can use their expertise to set clear policy goals and develop a concrete management agenda, said Dan Chenok, executive director for the IBM Center for the Business Government and a former executive at the Office of Management and Budget.

Past president’s management agendas can all serve as a roadmap for the Biden administration, he said, especially in how the president-elect sets goals and incentives for the federal workforce to act on that agenda.

The federal workforce has often been at the center of those management agendas. The Trump administration also described the workforce as one of three “pillars” driving the rest of its goals, even if it often struggled to deploy the right tone to convey its message.

“Tone matters and how the workforce is treated matters,” Chenok said. “There have obviously been issues of concern for the workforce especially in the last year or the last couple months that a Biden administration is likely to come in and take a close look at, whether that’s the new Schedule F executive order or the executive orders in inclusion and diversity in training.”

The Trump administration has said its goal in issuing the Schedule F executive order and the 2018 orders on employee firings, official time and collective bargaining was to hold federal workers accountable.

“Accountability” was a fixture in the Trump administration’s policies from the start. In his first State of the Union address, Trump called on cabinet secretaries to reward “good workers” and “remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.” He touted the number of employees who had been fired under the Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act.

Tobias said the administration often struggled to convey the right tone with its accountability message.

“Holding someone accountable can be a neutral word, or it can be a club,” he said. “It can be, ‘I’m going to hold you accountable, or else.’ Or, ‘look, I’m going to hold you accountable, and these are goals and objectives. I want to be here and I want to support you. I want to help you be successful.’ That’s a whole different approach.”

“I would hope that they would take the second version,” Tobias said of the incoming Biden administration. “I hope that they provide the leadership development that would create those kinds of relationships.”

Reviving labor-management relationships

President-elect Biden has promised he’d repeal Trump’s 2018 executive orders, which cut back on official time and limited collective bargaining. Unions are expecting Biden to fulfill that promise early.

But beyond simply repealing them, unions are looking for more. The Federal Workers Alliance, a coalition of more than a dozen employee unions, urged Biden’s team over the summer to consider reestablishing labor-management forums.

The forums aren’t new; former President Bill Clinton established them in a 1993 executive order. Bush repealed them in 2001, only to have Obama reinstate them eight years later. Trump also repealed them in the first year of his administration.

In reinstating formal labor-management partnerships, Biden could also issue a more proactive executive order that encourages and supports collaborations between agencies and unions, said Tobias, a former president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

“He needs to do more than he did in the Obama administration to ensure that the political appointees actually behave consistently with the language of the executive order,” Tobias said. “We discovered in the Clinton administration that without constant reinforcement, training and focus, it doesn’t happen. Most leaders, particularly leaders from the private sector who come into the federal government, really do not have experience dealing with unions. They don’t have experience in behaving collaboratively.”

The Obama order reinstating formal labor-management partnerships directed that those groups identify and measure the effectiveness of their activities.

“There was no follow-up and no insistence, and people didn’t do it,” Tobias said. “I’d love to see it in a Biden executive order [with] the support necessary for ensuring that it’s implemented and done.”

Using data to reimagine the workforce

Though it’s unclear whether a Biden administration would mandate that newly reestablished labor-management groups measure their productivity, Chenok said the president-elect’s team is exploring how it can use existing data to drive decisions about the federal workforce.

The Trump administration often drew on data from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, for example, to explain workforce policy changes.

“You have a lot of evidence that hasn’t been tapped before, like in the FEVS or in some of the unit-level surveys that the Office of Personnel Management has its disposal that haven’t been looked at,” Chenok said. “How do [you] set up the best functioning work team within a bureau? A lot of the discussion that’s coming into the transition and that will be focused on during the transition has been around focus[ing] on data and evidence as tools for decision-making.”

Past president’s management agendas have established baseline metrics, including the Trump administration. But those metrics have remained at a broad, high level, and Chenok said a Biden administration has an opportunity to take them to the next level.

“This is enabling the administration to look much more deeply at some of the databases that it has and help that drive decisions [about] how to set up incentives and management structures in the workforce,” he said.

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