As congressional ally retires, federal employee advocates cite progress, challenges

Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI) speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill Nov. 10, 2011 in Washington, D.C.
Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI) speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill Nov. 10, 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Brendan Smialowski, Baltimore Sun)

A leading advocate in Congress for federal workers, Sen. Daniel Akaka says he's pleased by progress on some of his priorities: Legislation to allow employees to work from home, reforms in hiring and the security clearance process, improvements in matching veterans and people with disabilities to jobs.

But as he prepares to retire after 36 years in Congress, the Hawaii Democrat says there remains work to be done.

"The federal government is facing some of the most complex challenges in our nation's history — and doing it with serious budget constraints," Akaka, 88, said last week during his final hearing as chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the federal workforce.

"To do more with less, it is more important than ever that we have a first-class workforce," he said. "The government must make the proper investments in its employees and take the steps necessary to recruit, retain, and develop its talent."

The subject of the hearing was "Investing in an Effective Workforce." But as the meeting unfolded in a wood-paneled room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, it became a celebration of Akaka's advocacy for federal employees.

Wearing a lei apparently given to him by Sen. Ron Johnson, the top Republican on the panel, Akaka listened as witness after witness thanked him for his support.

"You have been a stalwart friend of federal employees, both during the 14 years you served in the House of Representatives and during your distinguished 22-year career in the U.S. Senate," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the 150,000-member National Treasury Employees Union. "Your advocacy on behalf of the federal workforce, from your efforts to ensure fair pay and benefits to your actions to protect collective bargaining rights, will be sorely missed by federal employees everywhere."

"The federal workforce has been fortunate to have such a forward-thinking advocate on its side," said John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management. "Your efforts and priorities have closely aligned with those of the administration and have led the way to important changes in the federal employment experience."

"Even before you assumed a leadership role on this subcommittee in 2005, you distinguished yourself as a champion of better government, and a friend to the people serving in government," said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington nonprofit that encourages careers in government. "Building a world-class federal workforce is an immense challenge, and we thank you for your tireless work."

Stier then pivoted to talk about the challenges ahead.

"Only 13 percent of college students say they are knowledgeable about federal opportunities and how to apply for them," he told the subcommittee in prepared testimony. "For those who are aware of federal opportunities, the lengthy and cumbersome hiring process turns top talent away."

Stier praised successful legislation backed by Akaka and Republican former Sen. George Voinovich to streamline the hiring process, including allowing applicants to submit traditional resumes for federal jobs in place of lengthy essays.

Two years later, he said, most agencies now are using resumes in the initial stage of the application process, applicants are receiving more frequent and timely notification on the status of their applications, and hiring managers have become more involved in the hiring process, increasing the quality of the hires made.

"We believe it is critical that the next administration, whether it is led by President Obama or Governor [Mitt] Romney, sustain these efforts and make hiring reform a priority," Stier said. He spoke of tracking progress on reforms and holding executives accountable for recruiting and hiring.

Kelley praised Akaka's Whistleblower Protection Act, which passed the Democratic Senate this year, but has not been taken up by the Republican House. She said the legislation would "restore and expand protections for federal employees who disclose waste, fraud or abuse in the federal government," and the Treasury employees union would continue to push for House consideration.

William L. Bransford, general counsel of the Senior Executives Association and a representative of the Government Managers Coalition, spoke of the need to train federal supervisors in managing personnel.

"Often supervisory employees are promoted based on their technical skills in a certain area, not their management capabilities," he said. "However, upon reaching a supervisory position, these employees must work within their issue area and take on the added responsibility of managing complex personnel systems, conducting performance reviews, and dealing with personnel issues, such as adverse action claims.

"Unfortunately, most employees do not receive initial or ongoing training in the areas critical to effective management."

While current law requires agencies to create basic training programs for managers, he said, little guidance is provided on the types of training managers should receive or how often training must be conducted, and there are no systems to ensure required training is taking place.

"It has been the experience of our collective organizations that some employees wait over a year after receiving a promotion to a supervisory position before receiving any initial training," Bransford said. And "it is often the case that agencies designate training as one of the first items to be cut when funds are scarce."

He said the coalition, which worked with Akaka on a law that would have required that new managers and supervisors be provided initial training within one year of their promotion, "continues to believe that legislation is necessary.

Stier said "government's struggle to compete for experienced talent is especially troublesome when more than half of the members of the Senior Executive Service are eligible to retire and take with them a wealth of institutionalized knowledge and specialized expertise."

Their departures, he said, give the government "a unique opportunity to fundamentally rethink the way it develops leaders, hires and selects talent," for the executive service, composed of top government managers. It's also an opportunity for the government to consider how it "equips new members with the tools to be successful federal executives."

Stier praised legislation introduced by Akaka this year that would have improved executive pay, encouraged greater diversity and promoted more mobility among agencies and sectors. He expressed the hope that the next Congress would take up similar legislation.



'Important efforts'

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, named several "important efforts" championed by Sen. Daniel Akaka for the federal workforce. Among them:

•President Barack Obama issued a memo to streamline the federal recruitment and hiring process.

The Office of Personnel Management implemented legislation allowing workers to telecommute in order to maximize flexible work arrangements, to aid in recruiting the next generation of federal workers, and to allow agencies to maintain productivity during emergencies.

•Obama signed executive orders improving pathways for students and recent graduates to gain access to federal employment, increasing to the highest percentage in 20 years the number of veterans and those with disabilities hired by the federal government.

•OPM worked with the Department of Defense, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of Management and Budget to make the security clearance and investigation process more efficient and effective.

•Obama directed agencies to extend benefits to same-sex domestic partners of federal employees whenever legally possible.