Employee Participation in Federal Management

By Larson, James S. | Public Personnel Management, Winter 1989 | Go to article overview

Employee Participation in Federal Management


Larson, James S., Public Personnel Management


Employee Participation in Federal Management

The purpose of this article is to examine employee participation in federal management. Employee participation can take many forms: employee involvement in decision making, quality of work life (QWL) programs, employee suggestions and their utilization, and quality circles, to mention a few. The article begins with a discussion of employee involvement in decision making and quality of work life programs. Then data are examined from a study conducted by the Merit Systems Protection Board, discussing the use of employee suggestions and quality circles in major federal agencies. Finally, conclusions are drawn concerning the effectiveness of employee participation on organizational productivity in the federal government.

Employee Involvement in Decision Making

The push for more employee participation in decision making gained strength in the 1970s, with the success of Japanese industry and management. American corporations began to realize that Japanese success was related, in large measure, to their view of the organization and the use of human potential to achieve higher levels of productivity (Gehrman, 1986). The Japanese were very successful, utilizing methods like theory Z and quality circles, in removing artificial constraints on employees' productivity and in being sensitive to communication from the bottom-up. In contrast, American corporations, according to one critic, deceived themselves by ignoring bad news from the bottom-up, and dispensed "sugar coated mumbo-jumbo" from the top-down (Gehrman, 1986, p. 35).

Employee involvement is a fundamental shift from viewing employees as needing to be prodded, to viewing them as wanting to be self-starters and produce excellent work. To work, it must be integrated into the organizational structure at all levels, and not simply be an experiment of limited application. The purpose of employee involvement is not to create a more friendly work environment, although that is a desirable by-product, but its primary purpose is to improve productivity. To that end, information on productivity should be shared with employees (Crosby, 1986).

Supervisors tend to resist employee involvement programs, but their cooperation is essential if they are to succeed. There are several ways to educate supervisors and employees. One way is to teach supervisors that employee involvement programs make workers more responsible for their own jobs, thus giving the supervisor more time to plan and organize work. This point can be made by involving supervisors in middle management planning sessions.

Another method might be the training of supervisors in areas like group dynamics, problem solving and decision making. Employees also need to be educated in areas such as group and individual responsibility for productivity, democratic procedures, the limitation of union involvement, etc. (Schuster & Miller, 1985) What evidence is there that employee involvement in decision making works?

The evidence is abundant in Japan and Europe, as various forms of worker participation have been used successfully for years. In Great Britain and Sweden, joint consultation has worked, in West Germany and Norway joint management has been successful, and in Israel and Yugoslavia joint management has also succeeded (Flagler & Schroeder, 1977). In the U.S., studies show modest success with employee involvement. For example in a state study among Iowa Public Employees, it was found that a moderate relationship existed between organizational success and humanistic management practices (Daley, 1986).

In the state of Washington, a study of participation in the performance appraisal process found that employee self-evaluation works when supervisors are supportive of the process, and employees feel that supervisors are knowledgeable enough to modify evaluations (Steel, 1985).

Another study found that participation in decision making is related strongly to the quality and quantity of communication between superiors and subordinates, as viewed by subordinates, before the participation in decision making begins (Harrison, 1985). …

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