A bipartisan group of Federal lawmakers on Monday filed an amicus brief in support of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE)–the largest Federal government employee union–who recently sued President Trump over his Federal workforce executive orders (EO) issued on May 25.
The President’s three hotly-contested workforce EOs, along with proposed overhauls to employee payouts and contributions, and numerous priorities in the President’s Management Agenda (PMA), have sent a strong message that the Trump administration is thinking long and hard about its vision for the Federal workforce.
It all appears to be part of a very specific strategy around workforce reform, with a range of possible outcomes that remain murky. These actions beg the question: What is the government trying to do with its employees?
The President sent shockwaves, at least in government union circles, with the release of the EOs at the end of May. But many of their potential government-slimming, efficiency-driven priorities were articulated well before the orders were signed–in the PMA and elsewhere. Those reading the tea leaves would have known these changes were already on the way.
Labor union pushback has been fomenting for some time now against the administration’s moves. AFGE has filed two lawsuits against the Trump administration–the first on May 30 and the second on June 22–protesting the EOs on multiple grounds. On June 1, the National Treasury Employees Union sued Trump and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) over two of the EOs. On June 13, thirteen Federal employee unions banded together to file a collective lawsuit against all three of the EOs. Since the May 30 filing, fourteen additional unions have been added as plaintiffs to the initial AFGE suit.
Monday’s amicus brief, filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia by Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., Peter King, R-N.Y., and former Reps. Bill Clay, D-Mo., and Jim Leach, R-Ohio, argues that two of the President’s EOs violate the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute.
“These members believe that collective bargaining, the right to representation, and procedures to resolve workplace disputes fairly are vital to [the] workforce,” the congressmen said in the brief.
But lawmakers urging support of these pleas extends well beyond Monday’s brief. A group of 21 House Republicans, in a June 11 letter to President Trump, asked him to rescind the workforce EOs. On June 14, 23 House Democrats made the same request in a separate letter to the President. And forty-five Democratic senators joined the call to rescind the EOs on June 19.
The roots of proposed Federal workforce changes, however, extend well beyond the May EOs.
One of the contested EOs makes the process for firing underperforming Federal employees easier, by setting an official 30-day probationary period for employee performance improvement–shorter than many agency-specific timelines, including those undefined–and discouraging progressive discipline, which affords employees multiple “chances” to correct poor performance.
While the administration is making a statement about the Federal workers it might need to shed, it also may be turning an eye toward the ones it wants to retain and seeking ways to achieve cost-savings through its compensation transactions with them.
The Congressional Budget Office on May 24 evaluated a new line item in the President’s proposed FY2019 proposed to increase employee contributions to defined benefit pension plans through the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS).
“The proposal would boost those employees’ contributions by one percentage point per year until most employees contribute a total of about 7 percent of their before-tax pay,” the CBO analysis states. “Currently, Federal employees contribute between 0.8 and 4.9 percent of their before-tax pay.”
CBO estimated the proposal would increase Federal revenues by $109 billion over 10 years.
These efforts line up with OPM Director Jeff Pon’s stated goals for Federal workforce savings. In addition to the FERS contribution increases, his plan seeks to cut cost-of-living adjustments for Federal employees. Pon estimates $143.5 billion in potential savings through all of OPM’s proposed changes.
At a May 16 Federal IT workforce hearing held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, lawmakers including Rep. Cummings derided Pon for that plan.
“Is this really the Trump administration’s idea of developing a 21st century workforce,” Cummings asked at the hearing.
An AFGE representative testifying at the same hearing bashed Pon’s suggestion that the Federal government operate more like the gig economy and stop relying on long-term workers.
Margaret Weichert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), was also called upon at the hearing to defend the President’s vision of the “Workforce for the 21st Century,” one of the key pillars of the PMA.
Lawmakers, reading between the lines, argued that Federal employees may not be the key to that workforce of the future–but that replacing some of them via automation may be.
They cited statistics in OPM’s Federal Workforce Priorities Report, released in February and reiterated in the PMA, which said five percent of Federal jobs could be automated entirely, 60 percent of jobs could have more than 30 percent of their tasks automated, and 45 percent of total Federal work tasks could be automated.
Weichert was asked if the statistics mean the administration’s goal is to cut jobs.
“I think that’s not the primary goal,” Weichert said. “When we actually did the empirical analysis about jobs, there may be five percent of jobs that are purely possible to be automated, but we also have more than that number of jobs that we can’t fill. And so, reskilling and redeploying resources is part of what we’re looking at.”
And there is certainly evidence of that idea as government is reframing the way it looks at jobs.
Reframing Hiring and Firing
First, on the automation front, the PMA is looking to introduce an “automated hiring advisor” for managers by the third quarter of FY2018. It is also targeting new competency-based qualification requirements for government HR professionals by Q1FY2019. Both are signs of an increased emphasis on the incoming talent pool.
And by second quarter of FY2019, OMB must “develop a reskilling plan that would identify both ways to provide employees impacted by automation to do other work and identify skills needed in the future,” the PMA states.
Second, on performance targets, the PMA calls for agencies to identify its bottom 20 percent in the Employee Engagement Index, a measure of engagement correlated to worker performance, and target a 20 percent improvement in those units. Agencies must also complete at least 5 organizational assessments on low-performing work units. Both of these goals are targeted by the end of FY2018.
The PMA is also requiring that “all agencies update policies to remove non-statutory steps from the discipline process and ensure consistency throughout the agency” by Q2FY19. This aligns directly with the EO on probationary time, which provides a consistent, statutory timeframe for evaluating poor performance.
The Next Steps
So, what’s next for the Federal workforce? An ambitious government reorganization plan released on June 21 met with mixed reviews at a House hearing on June 27.
One of the administration’s proposed steps in the reorg plan is to “move the policy function of OPM into the Executive Office of the President (EOP).” AFGE has already lashed out against that idea, saying that making EOP “responsible for policy decisions in areas such as employee compensation, workforce supply and demand, and employee performance” would “undermine” the current merit-based civil service system.
It’s unclear if the lofty goals of the reorg plan will be implemented wholly, in part, or at all. But it’s clear that the workforce for the 21st century is presenting mounting challenges, and the administration’s response has been bold.
Operational efficiency, which seems to be the target, is a fair goal to strive toward. Expect constant debate over whether these policy pushes will be the proper route to get there. It will be interesting to see if the strategy positions the government to adapt to those 21st century challenges, or if it will merely create rifts between the government and its workforce.