Top Biden administration officials promise to rebuild, set new tone with federal workforce

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A little more than a month into the Biden administration, top leaders are anxious to reset the tone with the federal workforce, one they say is focused on empowering — not targeting — career civil servants.

“The president has made you a priority. He sees you, believes in you and trusts you,” Pam Coleman, associate director for performance management at the Office of Management and Budget, said Monday during a brief speech at a Government Executive virtual event. “Together with our partners at the Office of Personnel Management, I’ve been charged with delivering on President [Joe] Biden’s promise to support, protect and empower you and rebuild your teams and agencies.”

Coleman pointed to two executive orders, which Biden signed within his first few days in office, as evidence of the administration’s commitment.

The first order mandated mask wearing on federal property and created a new task force aimed at providing more centralized safety guidance for the workforce during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The second order rescinded several policies from the previous administration that limited collective bargaining and official time and banned certain kinds of diversity and inclusion training for federal employees and contractors. Biden’s order also repealed Schedule F, the new category of the excepted service that would have stripped some job protections from career policy employees.

“Words do matter here,” Coleman said. “President Biden has made it clear to all of us that words matter. Tone matters, and civility matters. It makes a difference when you tell your workforce that you deeply respect their expertise and service and will protect them.”

Coleman described the effort of “rebuilding” the federal workforce and recruiting more top talent as an “intensive one.”

“I’m well aware that the task before us is no small one,” she said. “In my less than one month here, I’ve come to learn anecdotally and quantitatively just how systematically the federal workforce has been damaged, disrespected and demoralized over the last few years. Each week we seem to uncover even more damage.”

OMB and OPM are working together to assess “the damage” from these policies, and they’re identifying strategies to reverse these impacts and rebuild the federal workforce, Coleman added. The president’s forthcoming management agenda will describe these strategies, among other priorities.

She didn’t offer many details, but the Biden administration is also interested in taking a more active role in recognizing federal employees and their work.

“I cannot emphasize this enough. Government and our workforce, again, that means you, achieve and deliver on our missions each and every day,” she said. “Let’s celebrate Public Service Recognition Week in May and the well-deserved awards like the Presidential Rank Awards and the Sammies. But we need to talk year-round about how you help improve the lives of Americans. And we’re asked about what we do and where we work, let’s be proud.”

Coleman isn’t the only Biden administration official who’s tried to reach out to the federal workforce in recent days.

As most new leaders do during their first few days on the new job, Tom Vilsack sent a message last week to the Agriculture Department’s workforce shortly after he was sworn in, again, as USDA secretary.

“I know a lot has changed in the four-plus years since I departed USDA as a member of the Obama-Biden Administration,” he said in a Feb. 25 email to the department’s workforce, which Federal News Network obtained. “One thing hasn’t changed, and that is my appreciation and respect for all of you.”

Vilsack previously served as USDA secretary for eight years during the Obama administration.

In his welcome video for the USDA workforce, Vilsack said he looked forward to hearing from employees about their ideas for “building a modern workforce and a modern workplace.”

And though he didn’t offer many specifics, he said he understood the importance of “maintaining top quality people and operations” at USDA’s research bureaus, mentioning the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture by name.

Both ERS and NIFA are operating with nearly 30% fewer employees today after a 2019 relocation gutted the bureaus’ workforces.

Morale dropped at those two USDA subcomponents and throughout the department more broadly in recent years, according to annual Best Places to Work rankings.

“I won’t rest until USDA is considered one of the best places to work in the federal government,” Vilsack wrote. “Our job in leadership is to make USDA a safe, fair and rewarding workplace for all employees. We want our staff to love to come to work every day, doing the important work that will help move our country forward. So, we must listen and collaborate. We must protect scientific integrity and provide outlets to share feedback. And we must work at rebuilding expertise in our agencies and restoring the confidence of our workforce.”

OPM ready to reemerge as workforce policy leader

In the meantime, OPM is poised to “emerge” as a leader of federal workforce policy and labor relations in the Biden administration.

“From what I’m seeing so far, there seems to be a real interest in having OPM reengage in that leadership role, and we’re really excited to be doing that again,” said Rob Shriver, associate director of employees services at the agency.

The agency has been hosting individual and group sessions with the federal employee unions, and OPM briefed national labor leaders on plans for the Safer Federal Workforce task force.

“OPM will be a leader in this administration in the federal labor relations space. My team has well-established relationships with both agency labor relations staff and federal employee union leadership from around the country,” Shriver said. “We will be a leading voice on implementation of the president’s agenda labor agenda for the federal workforce.”

Shriver said OPM had experienced a “tough go” in recent years. The uncertainty of the Trump administration’s proposed merger of OPM with the General Services Administration created low morale and drove some experienced executives to leave.

“Yes, a lot of people have left over the years,” Shriver said. “We have staffing shortages. There have been budgetary challenges. All of those things are there, and they’re real. But the OPM I came back to is the OPM that I love. It’s ready to go.”

OPM is also reviewing how agencies have adopted more flexible remote work policies and how they’re virtually recruiting and onboarding new talent during the pandemic. Shriver said he envisioned that OPM would provide “some helpful information” on these topics in the coming months.

Personally, Shriver said he’s interested in how private sector companies and state and local governments are changing their workforce policies for a virtual or hybrid world.

“We are going to be and we already are looking into this, thinking about it, and thinking about not only what it’s going to be like to return to the office and when, but what’s the future of government work look like?” he said.

As new appointees join OPM and OMB, Shriver said they’re intent on sending a “loud and clear” message.

“We need to be able to rely on the experts. The career civil servants are the experts in these areas,” he said. “Our intention coming in as leaders in the Biden administration is to tap into that, support it, provide appropriate policy direction [and] help identify what the priorities are. But really it has been a conscious effort to show the workers how much we appreciate them, how much the Biden administration appreciates them, and that this is a new day indeed. It’s a day of empowerment, respect and of real partnership and collaboration with the career civil servants who are the backbone of the government.”

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