Empowering Managers: Ideas for a More Effective Federal Workforce


Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs

Chairman Lankford and Ranking Member Heitkamp, thank you for the opportunity to share my views with the Subcommittee.   As National President of the National Treasury Employees Union, I have the honor of representing over 150,000 federal employees at dozens of federal agencies.  NTEU welcomes the Subcommittee’s interest in improving the federal workforce, and believes that the views of frontline employees, who compose the majority of individuals employed by the U.S. federal government, are relevant and meaningful when Congress is considering potential changes to personnel rules and processes.    


NTEU has long advocated for required managerial and supervisory training before this Committee, which would allow for better employer-employee relations through enhanced knowledge of personnel rules, employee rights, and performance management systems by federal management officials.  In the 114th Congress, NTEU supported Ranking Member Heitkamp’s legislation, S. 3528, the Federal Supervisor Training Act, which would provide federal managers and supervisors with training in their first year in these positions, as well as refresher training throughout their careers.  We believe that supervisor training, accountability, and development are essential for effective human capital management in the federal government, and that the current lack of proper training among managers and supervisors is responsible for some of the current problems facing the federal workforce today.  We were especially pleased to see that S. 3528 called for the development of competencies that supervisors are expected to meet in managing employees, as frequently managers are selected based on technical competency, but may lack supervisory abilities. 

NTEU strongly supports manager and supervisor training that teaches these individuals how to lead organizations and people, including how to respectfully manage employees who are high-achievers and those who are struggling with performance.  It is important that managers openly discuss performance goals and objectives prior to conducting the performance appraisal, and that they are fully aware of the need and the methods to reward job performance based on merit, and not on favoritism and other personal considerations.  Skilled supervisors will be able to make effective use of new hires’ probationary periods, and to observe due process requirements.  Additionally, management should be skilled in how to promote employee engagement with frontline workers, who may often be unaware of high-level agency policy, mission, and funding changes and challenges. 

An area that would benefit from managerial training is the implementation of the General Schedule (GS) system.  Despite comments to the contrary, under the GS, non-performers can be denied pay increases, while outstanding performers can also be properly rewarded.  However, supervisors need more training on the many pay and management flexibilities currently available to them under the GS.  Further, training for managers in the area of hiring would also aid in agencies’ hiring competent employees from the start.  There is often little understanding on the part of these officials on the various hiring authorities and the different requirements, including assessments, tied to them. 

It is essential that federal supervisors and managers be familiar with prohibited personnel practices and the merit system principles and that they address employee reports of harassment and reprisal, as well as not seek to retaliate against employees who act—according to a legally protected right--as whistleblowers to report violations of laws and rules, abuse of authority, wasteful actions, and dangers to the public health and safety.  The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) cites “decreased individual and organizational performance” when management officials fail to uphold these principles (Keys to Managing the Federal Workforce, MSPB, January 2017).      


The Administration’s recently announced government-wide hiring freeze, and forthcoming “long-term plan to reduce the size of the Federal Government’s workforce through attrition” (Hiring Freeze, Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, January 23, 2017) will pose unnecessary management challenges that will only serve to hamper agencies from accomplishing their critical missions, and will result in an increased and non-transparent use of outside contractors.  In its review of earlier hiring freezes, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) titled its 1982 work product, “Recent Government-Wide Hiring Freezes Prove Ineffective in Managing Federal Employment”.  Workforce staffing plans that fail to take into account agency responsibilities, and work requirements and operations, are counter-productive, wasteful of tax dollars, and leave federal managers in a position where they are unable to manage their agencies and offices. 

In fact, owing to an existing reduced level of funding, many federal agencies have been unable to hire new employees to replace departing workers for several years, and have already been forced into de facto hiring freezes, including at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which has experienced a dramatic decline in resources and staffing in this decade.  Not only do hiring freezes create more of a work burden on the existing, smaller number of employees, they also lead to backlogs for the public. NTEU calls on Congress to reverse this latest hiring freeze, and to ensure that our federal agencies are given the proper amount of funding to fulfill their work requirements and to maintain needed staffing levels.

Of major concern to NTEU is that prior to the hiring freeze, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has struggled to fill the initial 2,000 positons authorized by Congress in 2014. Not only is CBP not meeting its current staffing targets for federally funded CBP positions, CBP’s Workload Staff Model calls for Congress to fund the hiring of an additional 2,100 CBP Officers. One factor that may be hindering hiring is that CBP is not utilizing available pay flexibilities, such as recruitment awards and special salary rates, to incentivize new and existing CBP Officers to seek vacant positions at these hard to fill ports, including Portal, North Dakota. 

Another major impediment to fulfilling CBP’s hiring goal is that CBP is the only federal agency with a congressional mandate that all front-line officers receive a polygraph test.  Two out of three applicants fail its polygraph—about 65 percent--more than double the average rate of eight law enforcement agencies according to data provided to the Associated Press. The eight other law enforcement agencies that supplied information showed an average failure rate of 28 percent.  The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration failed 36 percent of applicants in the past two years. 

NTEU commends Congress’ work last year to enact legislation and to include a provision in the Fiscal Year 2017 Defense authorization bill that authorized the CBP Commissioner to waive polygraph examination requirements for certain veterans applying for CBP job openings.  

NTEU does not seek to reduce the standards used by CBP in their hiring process, but believes that there may be a problem with how the polygraph is currently administered and asks for CBP to review its current polygraph policy to understand why CBP is failing applicants at a much higher rate than individuals applying to work at other federal law enforcement agencies.

Finally, NTEU strongly cautions the Subcommittee against the enactment of government-wide hiring provisions that would allow federal positions to be filled with a lack of public notice and without regard to appropriate deference to veterans’ preference.  These well-established merit principles have long benefited both the nation and our civil service.  While federal managers need to be able to hire qualified individuals into federal service, public notice for federal jobs is what has ensured a non-partisan civil service, as well as a diverse workforce that reflects the American people.  Agencies that rely heavily on direct hire authority and other hiring exceptions, have a troubling track record of less diversity in the workforce (Annual Demographic Report: Hiring and Retention of Minorities, Women, and Persons with Disabilities in the United States Intelligence Community, Fiscal Year 2015).  NTEU remains firmly committed to fair competition, veterans’ preference and adherence to merit principles for the hiring process.

Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member Heitkamp, in closing, NTEU supports training and development for federal managers, so that these officials have the required skill-sets to better lead, mentor, and engage frontline employees.  However, we ask Congress to ensure that whatever changes are considered in the personnel area will not spur unintended management challenges, and that they will include the perspective of frontline employees, will not harm due process requirements and whistleblower protections, and will safeguard a non-partisan civil service that respects employees and the merit system protections.