The Business of Government Hour

 

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The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. The executives discuss their careers and the management challenges facing their organizations. Past government executives include Administrators, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Operating Officers, Commissioners, Controllers, Directors, and Undersecretaries.

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Join the IBM Center for a weekly conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business.

Beth Slavet interview

Friday, March 1st, 2002 - 20:00
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Beth Slavet
Radio show date: 
Sat, 03/02/2002
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Beth Slavet
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Arlington, Virginia

Wednesday, January 9, 2002

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the Co-Chair of The Endowment for The Business of Government. We created the Endowment in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. Find out more about the Endowment by visiting us on the web at endowment.pwcglobal.com.

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who's changing the way government does business. Our conversation this morning is with Beth Slavet, a member of the Merit Systems Protection Board. Good morning, Beth.

Ms. Slavet: Good morning.

Mr. Lawrence: And joining us in our conversation is another PWC partner, Bob Reeve. Good morning, Bob.

Mr. Reeve: Good Morning.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, Beth, let's start off by learning more about the Board. Could you tell us about its missions and its activities for our listeners?

Ms. Slavet: The Board, as established under the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, has basically two missions. The first mission, for which we are best known, is the adjudication of federal employment personnel cases. Probably what people are most familiar with are adverse actions. If someone gets fired or suspended by a manager in the federal government ultimately the decision of whether that is going to be upheld is made by the third party, which is the Merit Systems Protection Board, and ultimately by a three-member board.

Underneath the three-member board we have ten officers, 70 administrative judges throughout the country who decide the cases, sometimes in a hearing, sometimes on the record, depending upon what's appropriate. And then that case can be appealed through a petition for review usually to the three-member board. The three-member board is a bipartisan board made up of depending upon the administration one Republican, two Democrats, two Republicans, one Democrat, serving seven-year nonrenewable terms.

So the first mission of the Agency is for the Board to adjudicate cases and the staff of the Board to assist in the adjudication cases. The second mission of the Board is to ensure and do studies that the merit principles that have been established in the Civil Service Reform Act in Chapter 23 of Title V are incorporated and encouraged in practices throughout the government. So not only do we look at in individual cases the ensurance of merit principles and the prevention of prohibited personnel practices but we look through the missions part of the agency, the studies part of the agency, at actual practices within the government, which may or may not ensure the encouragement of merit principles.

One of the first things the Board has looked at and has looked at periodically throughout the Board's tenure, for example, has been the issue of sexual harassment, how much it occurred within the federal government in particular agencies, how great a problem it was, how it was perceived, and so that was one of the studies that we are most famous for because we basically do it about every ten years.

A second, which has now been sunsetted, but we traditionally had oversight generally of OPM's, Office of Personnel Management's, actions. And the vision of Scotty Campbell and Congress in 1978 was really to take the old Civil Service Commission and divide its functions up and to bring it into the 20th Century. So the Office of Personnel Management was created to basically serve as the government's personnel management expert and the old functions of the Civil Service Commission that had done that would transfer to the Office of Personnel Management.

Then a second agency that was created was the Merit Systems Protection Board to take the ad judicatory functions of individual cases away from the Office of Personnel Management and make sure that they would include and preserve due process and fairness and independence for both agencies and for employees.

And then a third agency that was set up through the Civil Service Reform Act was the Federal Labor Relations Authority with the organizations underneath that, the Federal Service Impasses Panel, for example, that would focus on not the employment relations within the federal government but the labor- management relations where there was an organized or attempts to organize and you were dealing collectively with a group of employees as opposed to individually and as an unorganized group.

A fourth part of the Civil Service Reform Act, which was obviously created to address some of the issues of government administration and efficiency and the handling of human resources within the Merit Systems Protection Board, was an Office of Special Counsel, which served to actually prosecute prohibited personnel practices, and particularly actions that may be taken against whistle blowers. Later on that function was separated out from the Merit Systems Protection Board to create a separate agency, the Office of Special Counsel.

Mr. Lawrence: How big is the staff of the Board?

Ms. Slavet: We have about 240 employees.

Mr. Lawrence: How are they divided between the adjudication and the studies?

Ms. Slavet: The mass of our function, the greatest proportion of our function, in terms of FTEs goes to adjudication. So you have something like 70 administrative judges in the field and their support staffs which would involve paralegals, administrative officers, clericals there, then an additional office called the Office of Appeals Counsel, which is made up of between about 35 lawyers and some additional paralegals whose job is to advise the Board directly on the decisions that come up from the regions.

Then we have a function of what we call the Office of Regional Operations, which is now only made up of two people, which tries to coordinate between the organizations and supervise what is done in the field. And then the actual mission of the studies function of the Board is about 10 to 14 people, most of whom are research analysts and psychologists who study broadly the overview. So that is a much smaller function which I think reflects the goals of the legislation but is also, unfortunately, part of the resource issue, which is the need to always move the cases and get out the cases and the Board has an excellent reputation for moving cases expeditiously and fairly.

And then the other sections of the Board are basically supports to those two functions. We have a General Counsel's Office. The Board litigates its own jurisdiction and timeliness cases before the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals so our Office of General Counsel is heavily involved in that as well as, obviously, advising on internal matters and including our Congressional affairs. We also have the basic components any organization has of a small personnel office and that's actually an interesting initiative that was done that I can talk about later.

We have a computer support group and we have a financial group, and we have a Financial Administrative Management Division that provides support for contracting, administrative, leasing, all of those kinds of functions but the bulk of our employees are directly involved in the ad judicatory function.

Mr. Reeve: What about the bipartisan Board members, what are their roles?

Ms. Slavet: Under the statute there are three statutory Board members, the chairman, the vice chairman, and the member of the Board, and in terms of adjudication they're all equal. Each Board member's vote counts the same as any other Board member's vote, and they're total peers and equals in terms of making that decision and act accordingly, like a court, an appellate court.

With regard to the overall mission of the agency and the direction it should take, that's the chairman's job. The chairman is the CEO of the Board and is responsible for all of the management and administrative functions. With regard to the studies functions that we were talking about the chairman has more responsibility for directing that but a lot of our studies functions are basically are proposed, and the career staff has a lot of independence in proposing and determining what the Board should look at next because they've got the continuity and they are the ones who are in touch on a day to day, month to month, and year to year basis on the evolving issues arising in government. And so they will normally propose a series of studies to the three-member board and we will comment back on what we think is good for the time and what should be focused in on.

So an example would be a study that was proposed, and we might narrow the focus and say we think you're biting off too much to deal with so let's look at this particular issue. We may never end up seeing, if we leave earlier, the results of those studies, because they're a long-term process.

Mr. Reeve: Let's shift and talk about your career. Tell us about your career before you came to the Board.

Ms. Slavet: We were talking earlier and you were talking about how some people think careers are linear, and I'm probably the person who would say I'm always surprised because I think I've jumped around to some extent. Before law school I actually worked in a prison in Massachusetts. It was a coed institution of men and women and I was a work educational release counselor and then manager of a pre-release program.

Then I went to law school and coming out I went into employment law and spent about four years working for a small union, federal sector union, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812, which represented at that time the then-existing United States Information Agency and represented both civil service and foreign service employees. And it was a great job because I got to do everything I wanted to do.

It was a very exciting time because it was subsequent to the Civil Service Reform Act of '78 and Congress was considering the Foreign Service Act of 1980, which mimicked a lot of the provisions of the Civil Service Act but not all of them because the Foreign Service has its own unique issues. And so I got to work on the legislation, draft the regulations, litigate over issues because there was a change in administration from the Carter Administration to the Reagan Administration and the management of the agencies changed and certain understandings that management and union had about how certain things were going to be done were no longer agreed about so we got to litigate that, write grievance regulations.

I was able actually to get to do whatever I wanted to do and it was a wonderful group of leaders in that particular union, a lot of whom had come actually out of the Catholic labor movement and brought into the United States Information Agency. The Catholic labor movement was the labor movement that had occurred throughout Latin America during the '60s when Kennedy came in and did the Alliance for Progress and were interested in forming their own union within the United States Information Agency and State Department. And so they had a real history of bringing cases to the Supreme Court on age discrimination, et cetera, so I spent about four and a half years there and had a lot of fun there.

And then I went into private practice with a firm and represented transit workers and nurses, continued to represent foreign service employees, often very high level foreign service employees, and then continued a practice and then decided at some point I wanted to do something else, got an offer to work for a Congressman from Massachusetts, Chet Adkins (phonetic spelling), and became his chief of staff and counsel.

And then he was defeated for election and I went from there to work for Senator Kennedy when he was chairman of the then Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, where I handled all sorts of labor issues and statutes involving employees. And then from there the Senate changed hands and I needed to look for a job and it's always funny when people introduce me or they ask me how I did. I literally looked through the Plum Book and I said I can do that. I've done employment law because I had had my own practice for six years in this time of practicing law. I actually had my own practice when I represented unions and federal employees and foreign service employees so I knew the case law and that's how I ended up at the Board.

Mr. Lawrence: That's a great stopping point. Come back with us as we continue our discussion with Beth Slavet of the Merit Systems Protection Board. This is The Business of Government Hour. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and this morning's conversation is with Beth Slavet, a member of the Merit Systems Protection Board. Joining us in the conversation is Bob Reeve, another PWC partner. Well, Beth, at the end of the last segment you said something interesting. You were describing your career and at your last job you said I was prepared for this, I knew the body of knowledge, and I was ready. And I'm curious because you said as you introduced your career that you moved around and yet it seemed as though you built this body of knowledge along the way. Was that really your intention?

Ms. Slavet: No, it wasn't really my intention. It's probably been my intention when I find out something is to learn it as well as I can and get very involved in it. But I think I started my career with wanting to be a private sector labor lawyer and it just didn't necessarily develop exactly the way that I saw it, so I had gotten involved with the AFGE Local 1812 with my job there and that opened up possibilities in learning and responsibilities and a familiarity with the knowledge of particular law that I wouldn't have obviously otherwise have had if I had gone straight into private sector employment law.

I also want to just correct one thing, because I missed a very important function of our Board, which is the Clerk's Office, which shouldn't be easy to miss because they actually hold everything together and they're the ones that are the most visible. The Clerk of the Board's name is the one that goes out on every decision that we decide and they run the website and they handle the paper, which is something people forget but they really remember it if a piece of paper that is needed gets lost and that doesn't happen with our Clerk's Office.

I was helped immediately by the fact that I came in with an increase in our budget, a $37 million increase, which for EEOC was an enormous amount of money. However, given the need, it really quite frankly wasn't enough at the time because our credibility was in question as an agency. We had been involved as anyone that would have read the papers at the time, in a series of articles that really were extremely critical to the agency. At the time, everyone thought about EEOC in terms of its backlog and in terms of the length of time it took to get to a charge and investigate cases 2 or 3 years before you even got an investigation.

Mr. Reeve: So it sounds like they're the ones who really touch the customer most directly. Who do you consider to be the customers of the Merit Systems Protection Board?

Ms. Slavet: The primary customers in terms of adjudication are, of course, the appellants, both the employees and the agencies, all the federal agencies. One of our biggest customers within that regard is the Postal Service and the Office of Personnel Management. The vast majority of our cases are adverse actions with second running up being retirement cases because we adjudicate retirement cases.

But in addition to that human resources managers, the public, policy makers both on the Hill and with the Executive Branch are all our audience who we influence either through our decisions, which sometimes people will react strongly to, or through our policy studies, which have a broader influence and not necessarily and obviously doesn't have the same kind of impact on an individual employee as a particular case does to an individual employee appearing before us or an agency counsel. Our cases may become their lives and that's not the case, obviously. It's a much more removed and objective process when you're doing policy studies from the perspective of the audience.

Mr. Lawrence: We know that the Board released a video to inform employees about the appeals process. What tools or techniques do you use to educate the customers about the processes?

Ms. Slavet: We use whatever techniques we can think of and I think if you look one of the techniques that have really been incredible through technology has been our website. If you look at our website we really have become quite aggressive at making announcements and making ourselves accessible of what is going on at the Board.

I'll give you an example: We've had a very highly litigated case involving the administrative law judge function and the Clerk's Office was getting calls about it all the time. When is the decision coming out? Will you send me a copy of the decision? To be able to announce and put that decision, which hadn't been done before, on the website so that it is accessible to everybody equally is an incredibly important way to reach our audience. We've gotten excellent feedback on our website.

Another thing our website does, and I can announce it first today, we have all our decisions on the website from '94 on and we've been working for the last year on a project because people had asked well, what about your earlier decisions, and so we had to overcome a number of obstacles dealing with contractor relationships and prior understandings and whatever and as of today all our pre-'94 significant decisions will also be on our website, and people can use them to do research.

In addition we actively do outreach, speaking, and share that information amongst ourselves. Also we've been publishing our surveys on the website, which hadn't been done before, so not only do we put the studies that we do, the announcements on the website themselves, but, for example, you mentioned we've done a video to try to reach our audience. The reaction and response to that has been incredible, and we've already distributed over 1500 tapes or cassettes to let people understand how a hearing is presented and what the concerns are so they'll know what they're getting into.

In addition we actually asked for feedback from people on use of video. We've also had video hearings wherein instead of having person-to-person hearings, particularly at an age where terrorism has become a real problem, for the ease of the parties you may want to have a video hearing instead. We asked for feedback from our clients on how that was working and one of the things that we have started using in the Office of Policy Evaluation, OPE, which generally does the studies, to help us internally so that we're not just doing broad range studies for the entire federal government but we've been using the skills that they have to look at ourselves and make ourselves a better organization in terms of getting feedback and critiquing ourselves.

Another thing besides the video that we had was we instituted processes we call case suspensions where the administrative judge and the parties can ask for suspension of discovery, for example, because they need more time. We were having terrible complaints both within the organization and outside that sometimes because we do such a good job and we move our cases so expeditiously that it gets cut off too quickly, that we should be sufficiently flexible to take that into account. And so we adopted a rule that allowed the parties and the AJ to work together to do that and the feedback, the positive feedback, has really been overwhelming, and there hasn't been any negative feedback at all, both from our administrative judges, who didn't necessarily think, all of them, that it was a good idea, and from the public and from our constituents.

Mr. Reeve: The website, by the way, is very easy to navigate. It's at www.mspb.gov.

Ms. Slavet: Thank you, yes, and it is easy and we've got a "What's New" section. You can learn about who the individual Board members are. You can find out about our annual report that we just published. I'm very pleased to say we just published our 2001 annual report on the website. It's not out in print yet but the fiscal year ends on September 30th and it's now January, and our annual report is out.

Mr. Reeve: That's great. Now, President Bush recently announced his reform package, the Freedom to Manage Initiative. How do you think the flexibilities in hiring and training and compensation of personnel will impact federal government agencies from your perspective at the Merit Systems Protection Board?

Ms. Slavet: I think it depends upon the leadership, the buy-in. I think the idea of some certain flexibility makes a lot of sense but with flexibility comes accountability and the leadership of an organization and the middle managers who are carrying out that flexibility need to both understand it and have the resources to be able to do it. It has to be adapted to the culture of each agency and there has to be the buy-in and some of those ideas and some of those flexibilities can and will be good but, again, it depends upon whether people are accountable for it and whether the leadership has the resources to really carry it out because if it's done only in terms of well, this is our marching orders but we're really not given the resources to, for example, hire the kinds of people we really want to hire and we know there's a certain audience we want to get but how do you get to that, people given the tools to understand how they need to do that.

One of the things we've been doing with Office of Policy Evaluation, OPE, we're doing a study that comes out, for example, on the interview process. If you want to get the best people into government one of the things you need to know how to do once you reach a group of applicants is to set up the interview process in a way that's a fair process and that everybody understands how the interview process works so there's something called a structured interview. That's something that's not used widely in agencies and it's because personnel managers and managers at the particular level don't necessarily understand and know about how to use that particular tool. So if you don't educate people on the use of those tools you can have loads of legislation proposing certain things but it's not going to work.

There's another legislative proposal, and I can't remember whether it's in the President's bill, to deal with what's called the performance issue. And there's always a concern that the ad judicatory process takes too much time. It's too hard to get rid of a federal employee, a bad federal employee.

Well, first of all, I don't think there are that many bad federal employees. I think most of our federal workforce is quite, quite good. But to the extent that there is a proposal that says okay, if you want to demote somebody or get rid of a poor performer you only give them 15 days notice instead of 30 days notice that's going to do nothing. That just has to do with the notice period. The question is whether the manager prior to that period worked with the employee, identified that the employee was a problem, clearly put the employee on notice and worked with them. So there is that issue, that it's not going to solve the problem of the poor performer and it's going to create real problems in terms of due process and spawn additional litigation over a 30-day versus a 15-day time period and what should really apply and did the person get real notice on that.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, that's it for this segment so rejoin us in a few minutes as we continue our conversation with Beth Slavet of the Merit Systems Protection Board. This is The Business of Government Hour. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and today's conversation is with Beth Slavet, member, Merit Systems Protection Board, and joining us in our conversation is Bob Reeve, another PWC partner.

Mr. Reeve: Beth, can you describe the Board's role in the personnel processes within the federal government for our listeners and talk about the appeals process?

Ms. Slavet: Yes, it's funny because in some ways a lot of people misunderstand this. We have a passive more than an active role in personnel processes because while we have this studies function that broadly studies matters we'll sometimes get letters of complaint from employees. I got one a while ago that's saying you should be responsible for dealing with all of the personnel practices within the federal government.

That's not how we work. We have an individual case. It's a very passive role. We have an individual case that comes to use. We have to determine under the statute whether we have jurisdiction of the case, that is, whether we have the right to decide the case under the law that Congress has given us to administer. And those are the particular individualized cases that will come to us that we then get a chance to issue a decision in or not issue a decision in.

An interesting case I remember a while ago was we've got some new statutes that we're responsible for administering more involved in Veterans rights. And I remember reading some testimony from a hearing from Veterans groups complaining that we hadn't taken jurisdiction over a particular case. We weren't deciding the case. Well, the fact of the matter is it was very clear under the statute that we didn't have jurisdiction. So although the person may have had a problem it was not something that was appropriate for us to reach out and to decide.

If somebody thinks there is a particular violation of a merit principle and there's a prohibited personnel practice the bodies they really need to be going to are either their Inspector General, their Office of Personnel Management, or the Office of Special Counsel. For example, the Office of Special Counsel is a prosecutorial agency so they have the ability to investigate.

Because we're an ad judicatory body it's what you bring us, what information you bring us that we deal with. We don't have an investigatory arm, and people sometimes are confused about that. The way the appeals process typically works is usually an employee based on our cases comes to us. We'll get notice from their agency that they have a right to complain about something like, let's say, a suspension that was taken. They get 30 days notice. They file a complaint with us. It goes through our regional office. The regional office puts out an acknowledgement order saying this is what it appears your case is about, this is what your burden of proof is; this is what you have to do. They'll hold a pre-hearing conference with both sides, the agency and the appellant. They'll hold a hearing, depending upon the case, and then they'll issue a decision.

All of this will happen under our normal processing time in less than 100 days unless, as I indicated before, there's something really unusual about discovery or complexity or whatever and then that case can be appealed through a petition for review to the three-member board, where it will come in and -- the Clerk's Office will accept it, will transfer it to the Office of Appeals Counsel, where I had mentioned that there were about 35 attorneys there. They will make a recommendation to the three- member board.

Each board member has their own staff that reviews that recommendation and accepts it or rejects it based on what the board member wants. If the board member rejects it, it goes through a while process where the board member will actually do a rewrite saying here's why I think the recommendation is wrong; here's the analysis that I would apply.

They circulate that rewrite. If they get a second vote it gets written up and that would be the decision that ends up issuing as opposed to the recommendation of the Office of Appeals Counsel. We have a GPRA goal, a Government Performance Results Act goal, of how often that should happen and it varies between nine percent and last year it was 15 percent where we actually rejected the recommendation of the Office of Appeals Counsel and went with a different recommendation.

Mr. Lawrence: Based on watching the appeals what's your perspective on the practices that agencies could use to avoid being an appeal?

Ms. Slavet: First of all, when there is an issue at the manager level, at the immediate manager level, from the very, very beginning I think, and this is based more on my internal management experience than it might be from the case, but it's also from the case. Sometimes when I see, particularly some of the disability cases, they need to talk. Management and the employee need to talk. The employee needs to know what they're doing wrong, how they can improve it, that there will be accountability but also that what happened in the past how you can learn from your mistake and move forward. The managers need support from their managers so that that style of managing is appreciated and understood so the dispute doesn't become a political game within themselves.

Sometimes the manager makes hard decisions of saying I don't think this employee should be removed. I think the employee needs to be suspended and sent a strong message, but it's not an employee that we need to get rid of at this point. And I think they should use a lot of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms in place. They should try to use those mechanisms.

I went to a conference and heard of an interesting case that came out of the Postal Service and they had a terrible EEO backlog. What was happening was the supervisor kept calling this one female employee by their mail carrier route, Route Number 6543, and this was at a conference involving a lot of Fortune 500 companies and the person brought an EEO complaint.

Well, the EEO complaint had no merit because the supervisor called all the employees by their route number, which was clearly not a good supervisor management practice, and somebody should have told him to stop it. But at some point it had to get through this process and raised through this EEO process before it could get to be resolved. That's silly, that's not very good management, and somebody should have been aware of that. It wasn't an EEO problem but it ended up becoming within the litigation framework when it really shouldn't have been.

Mr. Reeve: Part of your mission is to provide oversight of the significant actions of the Office of Personnel Management. What are the challenges in this aspect of your mission?

Ms. Slavet: Well, actually, the official mission has sunset but we're still continuing to do it and we're about to put out a basically a 20-year retrospective with the emphasis on the last 10 years. And I think there's a tension there because with the Office of Personnel Management they're a frequent litigator in front of us. They're always the party when it comes to retirement cases.

If a case has got significance across the government as opposed to a particular agency they are the party who appears in front of us so I think there is a good relationship but a different relationship between the staff of Office of Policy Evaluation, who work more closely with the Office of Personnel Management people on a day to day basis on the broader personnel issues, but I think there's also what I would perceive as a natural tension in that role and a line to walk of how much we're criticizing or suggesting changes to the Office of Personnel Management that they feel are really within their bailiwick.

They're the personnel manager and their perception, perhaps, that we're more employee-oriented, anyway, and we're going to reflect that perception so I think it can be an uneasy relationship. I do think it's one that the career people and the Office of Policy Evaluation have established with themselves and is incredibly credible so the relationship is good but with regard to other sections of OPM there is a natural unwillingness, I think, for example, to have a dialogue between the Chairman of the MSPB and the head of OPM on policy practices because so much a member of the Board is seen as and is an independent decision maker.

So what does that mean if an independent decision maker starts making policy recommendations? And it is particularly a difficult line to walk on a question when we get a question from the Hill because on the one hand we do not make substantive policy decisions and there was recent legislation that I commented on, the Whistleblower Protection Act. On the other hand we have certain expertise in these areas, technical expertise, so how do you walk the line of making sure that people understand the policy makers, OPM understands the issues? At the same time you are upholding your independent status, which is like being Caesar's wife. You want to be as pure as you possibly can and not compromise that and that can be difficult.

Mr. Lawrence: That's a good stopping point. Come back with us in a few minutes as we continue our discussion with Beth Slavet of the Merit Systems Protection Board. This is The Business of Government Hour. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: This is our continuing discussion with Beth Slavet, member of the Merit Systems Protection Board, and joining us in our conversation is Bob Reeve, another PWC partner.

Mr. Reeve: Beth, how do you measure your success and what kind of feedback have you gotten from other federal agencies and HR practitioners?

Ms. Slavet: I actually think the Government Performance Results Act is a good tool to help measure success. It has made us focus on cases, how many cases we're getting out, the efficiency of them, the reversal and remands, but not just on cases, what we're producing, what we thought we could produce, always trying to be reasonable. I don't think you should set unreasonable expectations for people because you can promise too much and then not deliver but focus on the things that you needed to deliver and then look back a year later and see whether you've delivered them.

There are two different kinds of feedback that the MSPB gets. One is how effective we've been in getting out a message as an independent agency that is truly independent and makes good legal decisions and I think we have an excellent reputation. One way we measure that is how often we're affirmed by the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.

Another way to measure that is talking to the parties and getting a sense of whether they may say yes, I lost but it was a well-written decision and I understand why I lost. So that's one way to measure feedback as well as some of the things we talked about before, through the website, through our surveys, so I think that's how and looking at whether the initiatives we've undertaken, we've accomplished, and we're happy with and other people are happy with.

We established an expedited petition for review program where we tried to weed out those cases that appear to be more frivolous, had less merit, that we might not have jurisdiction over, for example. When I say "frivolous" a case, as an example, is when a Safeway employee comes to us. Well, we don't have jurisdiction over a Safeway employee. We're obviously going to dismiss that case and it does happen because people think oh, we can solve everything with the Merit Systems Protection Board. That must mean we ensure merit. Well, there's no reason why that should get bogged up in the system. So the question is in terms of measuring success is what obstacles did we have to overcome, how did we overcome them, and can we duplicate that, and can we avoid the problems that we had in the past, and in the next exercise that we have to do, the next task that we have to accomplish, avoid those problems or take them into consideration so that we know how to get around them and understand them.

Another example of doing that is a lot of organizations have labor management partnerships or labor management issues. You can't pretend that doesn't exist. You've got to take it into recognition and figure out how your strategy is going to deal with it. So those are the things that you just have to identify what the obstacles are, and try to get around them.

Mr. Lawrence: What's your view of the trend in which agencies secure special personnel authorities outside of Title V?

Ms. Slavet: If they do it I think it has both dangers and possibilities and the dangers are that it doesn't have the buy-in of the employees involved, and if you don't have the buy-in of your own workers it isn't going to work smoothly. And it is important for it to be well thought out as opposed to a knee-jerk reaction to under this statute we're not able to do this and we want to be able to do this. Well, why do you want to be able to do it? Is there another way you can get to it? Is what you really want to do a legitimate objective of the government and something that the government from all policy perspectives needs to be doing or is it something for the ease and convenience of a few people?

Is your recruitment problem taking into account the other needs of the government that exist and if it's throwing something out is that something that needs to be looked at on the whole, not from the perspective of an individual agency that it's creating a problem for but really have a debate about the pros and cons, which sometimes doesn't happen. It's sometimes just who's got the political clout to get out from under a particular system because they say that the system isn't working for them when in fact they could make the system work if they understood how it worked and had buy-in to the system itself.

Mr. Lawrence: One issue of concern in the federal government is the upcoming wave of retirement of federal employees. What solutions to the retirement wave do you think government agencies should be considering?

Ms. Slavet: I think they need to be first recognizing where there is going to be a problem, in what areas they expect retirements to occur, still respecting individuals' rights, and identifying, that is, rights of does somebody want to retire as an independent choice and recognizing how their agency needs to refocus in a long-term way.

There's nothing wrong with making decisions over. Joe is going to retire. Is that an opportunity to look at the function that Joe's office is doing and combine it with another function, determine whether the function is still meeting the agency's needs or needs to be revisited, and I think the most important thing is probably doing management transitions, transitional planning to ensure that you've created long-term management skills within the agency and have given people an opportunity to step up to the plate, which can sometimes be difficult to be done with the classification system as it exists now.

The classification system as it exists now is something that has been in place for many, many years and sometimes helps create the rigidity or contributes to the rigidity that then contributes to retirement planning. So if you've got somebody who you know is going to retire what do you do to both prevent pre-selection of somebody for an inside post but give people the opportunity to recognize that that position is going to become vacant and how do they and the agency prepare for that opportunity? And I think that the best way to do that is to be transparent about it, to talk to the managers and the employees about this is what is happening within our agency, and how will we as an organization, not just management, not just the head of the agency, going to deal with that?

And I think if there's that kind of transparency and input you will get people's buy-in because if people understand why something is being done a certain way and have a chance to comment on it they may not totally agree with it but they'll appreciate it and you're much more likely to get buy-in.

Mr. Lawrence: What advice would you give a young person interested in a career in public service?

Ms. Slavet: They should go for it. I'm dating myself but I still remember JFK and his call to public service. I think serving the public is an incredibly rewarding activity. I would urge the new person not to get discouraged by the fact that there seem to be so many obstacles in terms of 171s and resumes and finding out information. I would encourage them to call people in the agency and have coffee with them and talk about what they're doing and be aggressive. I would encourage them to look at the PMI program, the Presidential Management Intern Program, and take advantage of it.

I would encourage them, now, this is my own bias, but not necessarily to stay within the same agency. I think it's good for people to move around. The original concept of senior executive service in terms of the highest levels of management was that these were people who could move from agency to agency. I don't think that's worked out so well. These were going to be super managers. That was Scotty Campbell's perception. And people should have fun. They should take jobs because they like them and when they stop having fun they should look for something else.

Mr. Lawrence: What insights or advice would you have for future leadership?

Ms. Slavet: I've been transitioning now. I became acting chairman and then chairman and then in the last month have not been chairman any more. And one of the things we did in our agency and I would urge people to do in every agency for incoming leadership is to establish very early on that you are accessible, that things will be done in a transparent fashion, that you expect the senior managers to work together and hold them accountable.

It's a very difficult relationship between senior managers, I think, and new leadership when it comes in. Everybody is feeling each other out. How are things going to fall? Who's going to be responsible for what? And I think the incoming leadership in any organization needs to have a number of early meetings with the agency employees.

One of the things that I did was I met with each group of employees separately to hear from them individually as well as to meet with the senior managers in a group and get their feedback. Express some of the initiatives you want to take. Ask for people's help on those initiatives. Throw it around but also realize there are certain things you're going to be able to accomplish and certain things you're not going to be able to accomplish. Figure out what you can do with the people, where you get buy-in, and try to accomplish those.

Mr. Lawrence: Beth, I'm afraid we're out of time. Bob and I want to thank you for joining us this morning.

Ms. Slavet: Well, I want to thank you and I want to remind everybody about our website, our way of communicating with the world, which is www.mspb.gov, and encourage people to check it out.

Mr. Lawrence: Great. This has been The Business of Government Hour featuring a conversation with Beth Slavet, member, Merit Systems Protection Board. Be sure and visit us on the web at endowment.pwcglobal.com. There you can learn more about our programs and get a transcript of today's very interesting conversation. This is Paul Lawrence. See you next week.

Beth Slavet interview
03/02/2002
Beth Slavet

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