Unlike the popular TV show from which we have borrowed our headline, it is not a good thing to be the biggest loser among management LR staffs in the federal government. But the Department of Homeland Security unquestionably has the most losses before the FLRA over the last two years. NTEU hammered CBP management in 15 out of 19 cases while AFGE won 16 out of 21 cases over DHS components such as Border Patrol, ICE, and CIS. Added together, that is 31 loses out of 40 FLRA decisions. Here is what it means.
First of all, it means DHS executive leaders likely are incompetent. While we get it that the department’s core mission is far more important than properly managing labor relations, many of these losses resulted in DHS being liable for back pay sums so large that the total is in the tens of millions. That money has to come from somewhere and unless management is hiding a huge slush fund from Congress and the President, it comes from money that could go to support the core mission. Surely, at least a few people on Secretary Napolitano’s staff get paid to avoid financial drains like that, e.g., the Chief Human Capital Officer. If so, they must be on long-term leave.
Second, it means that the bureau-level LR leaders at CBP and other components are likely incompetent. Obviously, they are not correctly assessing the merits of these cases 75% of the time—and yet they keep their jobs. Even if they are advising top managers correctly and nonetheless being ordered to take unwise positions they still must be considered incompetent. It is one thing for a GS-9 LR specialist’s advice to be ignored by executive level leaders, but a lot of DHS LR managers are getting GS-14 and 15 salaries. At those pay levels, there is an expectation that they are able to convince their principals of the right thing to do.
Third, employee confidence in front line managers must be suffering severely. If employees know that their union reps are far more likely to be right about some workplace dispute than management, why should they be persuaded by anything that their managers say? As if that is not bad enough, sophisticated line managers are probably shielding themselves from that by ignoring LR’s advice and making off-the-record deals.
Fourth, employee morale is unlikely to get better soon. That is critical because DHS employees score their agency among the lowest in government in the annual OPM Best Places to Work Survey. Anyone who has taken a Management 101 course knows that employees work harder and more effectively when they respect their managers and feel they are part of a competent organization.
Fifth, union strength is growing in tangible and intangible ways. Union membership has grown according to Department of Labor records. Moreover, if the unions are winning 75% of the time there is no doubt that their willingness and confidence to challenge management is also growing.
Sixth, it means that management has a miserable relationship with union leaders, Union leaders probably do not share insights that top managers could benefit from, do not put forth that extra bit of energy to help management avoid or solve problems, and do not partner with management to support the changes that should be made to boost agency effectiveness. No matter what management tries to do it is likely seen with suspicion by union leaders and automatically challenged until the union is certain it is not anti-employee.
None of this is likely to turnaround unless Secretary Napolitano inserts herself into the mess and demands change from her executives. DHS bureau executives learned long ago that the longer they push off resolving a problem with the union the more likely they will be retired or otherwise gone–and free of any accountability. Delay kicks the can down the road forcing someone else to find the money to pay for their errors; it also relives them of having to drive a change through their management structures.
GAO probably has the clout to drive some change if it shines a spotlight on the DHS LR mess and calls for improvements, but OPM is a lost cause. It long ago got out of the LR leadership business and does little more than carry out OMB orders these days. OMB could drive change very quickly if it penalized management for any increased cost of doing business due to LR blunders, but don’t anyone hold his or her breathe waiting for that to happen.
FEDSMILL staff has over 40 years of federal sector labor relations experience on the union as well as management side of the table and even some time as a neutral.