Federal employee morale has dropped to an alarming low, and legislators are demanding action. Recently, members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and two of its subcommittees sent a letter requesting that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) study federal employee engagement and recommend steps the federal government can take to improve it. To improve the situation, it’s important that we acknowledge some factors that, if not addressed, threaten to extinguish many of the bright stars, or top talent, in government. These difficulties can be thought of as black holes which prevent anything, including light, from escaping. Within government, there are three realities, or black holes, that have potential to dampen the brilliance of bright stars. The first reality is that many people are stretched way too thin as a result of budget cuts and staff reductions. Second, new technologies are slow to be adopted and implemented. Third, complex systems are difficult to lead and manage. Let’s take a look at these three threats and then examine how we can lead the way to address them.

Many People Are Stretched Way Too Thin
For years, many agencies government-wide have been asked to do more with less, and as a consequence, lots of people have become overworked. In many cases, employees wear more than one hat. In doing so, they attempt to keep multiple domains of responsibility from spinning out of control while they stretch to keep everything glued together and operating as smoothly as possible. For example, federal performance improvement officers (PIOs) are stretched thin and receive too little support from their superiors for their work, according to a report in Government Executive. In a survey of 23 PIOs, the Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton LLP found that few agency leaders hold their workforce accountable for performance and program inefficiencies. PIOs also spend too much time complying with duplicative reporting requirements that are not used effectively to improve performance. PIOs spend less than half their time on performance management because many have other responsibilities. Many federal employees are in similar situations. We must find ways to prevent people from burning the candle at both ends indefinitely, or they will burn out completely.

New Technologies Are Slow To Be Adopted
Government agencies tend to be slow in adopting technologies as illustrated in a recent study, which explored adoption of new and innovative technologies among federal government decision makers. This research, conducted by Market Connections, revealed the perception of technology adoption in government agencies as “slow and difficult to keep going”.   According to Information Week Government, the public sector trails the private sector in its adoption of cloud computing globally. Only 23% of the public sector is using cloud computing, versus 42% of the private sector companies, according to a Red Shift Research study. Also, respondents from private-sector companies currently using cloud computing are happier with the value they’re getting out of cloud computing than their public-sector counterparts. According to the survey, 61% of respondents in the U.S. private sector said they’re deriving more value from the cloud, while 41% of public-sector respondents said the same. There is much work to be done to ensure our government can quickly facilitate technology transitions smoothly and quickly to ultimately result in an upturn of system-wide performance.

Complex Systems Are Difficult To Lead And Manage
The nature of government makes it unwieldy and complex. Large acquisitions and critical programs are extremely challenging to execute. Ongoing fraud, waste and abuse can be difficult to uncover. Also, managerial techniques struggle to keep up as complexity increases, often resulting in blown budgets and missed schedules. This is due to the difficulty of creating systems comprised of thousands of elements, addressing hundreds of requirements, produced by multiple manufacturers. For example complex defense and network-centric systems, such as the Army’s Future Combat System, the Coast Guard’s Integrated Deepwater System, and the Federal Aviation Administration’s Next Generation Air Traffic System were extremely ambitious and riddled with challenges. Successfully managing programs such as these is vital, because they are designed to provide critical future national security capabilities. But, as we’ve seen, such systems are difficult to develop and oversee especially if they incorporate technology that was not yet created when the systems were in development. To achieve better results in the future, we must adopt lessons learned from past programs and forge ahead.

Human Capital Strategies Can Lead the Way to Rescue Bright Stars
The threats discussed above can be addressed in part by attending to the human element and putting a solid human capital strategy in place. Human capital strategies produce solutions for workforce alignment while implementing plans to support succession, on-boarding, and talent development. Measurable effects include staff satisfaction, engagement and retention. Tried and true options exist for government. But, human capital strategies are doomed unless they unfold in a cultural dialogue that motivates, inspires and improves the workforce. Collaboration is the way to ensure that dialogue isn’t idle chatter or bitter grievance. In the end, leaders must get outside their comfort zones to drive conversations and behaviors that magnify individual, team and enterprise performance. Effective leaders can increase stability and minimize risk by developing current talent, ensuring succession during attrition, and retaining their bright stars. This is true during transition and growth as well as economic strain. Given our current state, I would assert there is no time to waste.

Dr. Marta C. Wilson is the CEO of Transformation Systems Inc. (TSI), an executive strategies and management systems engineering firm that helps clients exceed their goals by working in multidisciplinary expert teams and crafting simple solutions to vexing dilemmas. TSI helps clients transform into leaner, faster, smarter and better organizations, so they can expand revenue, reduce costs, and increase profits—while attracting and retaining cutting-edge talent needed to excel in an economy driven by ideas, new technologies and unpredictable global influences. For her commitment to corporate social responsibility, Dr. Wilson was recognized as 2011 Corporate Heroine by March of Dimes and Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association.  In 2012, she received the National Jefferson Award for Public Service. 

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