Crisis in the Federal Workforce: Challenges, Strategies, and Opportunities

Article excerpt

A long-time public servant who has served as mayor, governor, and US senator shares his optimistic vision of a revitalized government culture.

Looming Retirement Crisis

What would happen if half of America's federal employees suddenly retired tomorrow? While some that readily blame the nation's ills on the federal workforce might welcome this move, the paralysis that such an event could bring to health research centers, airports, veterans hospitals, and the national security establishment would not be so welcome. Such a loss could precipitate a crisis in government that would leave a significant and lasting impact on our nation. Unfortunately, this is not a hypothetical scenario: by 2005, more than half of the federal workforce--900,000 employees--will be eligible for regular or early retirement. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) estimates that, of those who are eligible, 293,000 individuals will actually retire within the next four years.

It doesn't make headlines, but the federal workforce is in crisis. What's more alarming is that few recognize this fact. Without comprehensive action and sustained attention from Congress and the administration, the ability of the federal government to deliver the services the American people have come to expect will steadily erode as many of our most experienced employees retire.

My interest in the unmet needs of the federal workforce stems from 18 years of dealing with the federal government as an "outside force"--10 years as mayor of Cleveland and eight years as governor of Ohio. For nearly two decades, I observed that investing in personnel and workforce management--indeed, management in general--were not priorities in the federal government.

For me, management has always been a priority, and my own experience has taught me that, of all the things in which government can invest, resources dedicated to human capital will bring the greatest return. In fact, one of the first things I did as mayor and when I became governor was to conduct a thorough management review of Cleveland's and Ohio's government operations. Both of these exercises were invaluable.

Need to Invest in Employees

One of the recommendations from the statewide review was to initiate a quality management effort, called Quality Services Through Partnership, or "QSTP," modeled after similar successful initiatives in the private sector. Essential to successful implementation of this program was making an investment in the employees of the state of Ohio. I determined that we needed to improve their training and professional development, create an environment which would empower our state workers, and do so in partnership with our unions. With the help of the Xerox Corporation, which invested over $3 million in personnel and management assistance, more than 54,000 state employees were trained in quality management, and a new workforce development fund was established. The program we implemented was a resounding success. We improved operations and the delivery of services and reduced the workforce by 17 percent through attrition. But most importantly, we changed lives. I'll never forget the words of one enthusiastic employee who told me, "QSTP changed my life and saved my marriage!" It was one of the best initiatives I undertook as governor, and it is still going strong because unions and management operated as equal partners.

When I came to the US Senate in 1999, I wanted to see if a similar initiative could be undertaken at the federal level. I specifically asked for a seat on the Senate's "watchdog" panel, the Governmental Affairs Committee. In addition to getting the committee assignment, I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to chair the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, Restructuring, and the District of Columbia. As chairman, I immediately set to work on the observations that I'd made over the years: that management of the federal workforce is often an afterthought, and that the workforce was in need of attention. …