Labor, Management Must Collaborate for Better Performance

July 25, 2005
Stephen Goldsmith and Robert Tobias

Federal Times

As citizen demands for government services increase faster than available funding, federal employees will have to greatly increase performance. Yet the leaders who will influence whether the challenge can be met — political appointees and union leaders — have large differences of opinion concerning how to do more with less.

One approach, competitive sourcing — conducting competitions between public employees and the private sector — has generated years of argument about whether it is the means to breakthroughs in productivity. As members of Government Accountability Office’s Commercial Activities Panel, we found ourselves opposed to each other on the appropriate scope and process the government should use to conduct competitive sourcing. Although we disagreed when the panel issued its 2002 report, “Improving the Sourcing Decisions of the Government,” we do agree that the old battle lines — over what should be privatized and what should not — obscure the more fundamental problem that government is being transformed from a hierarchical form to a network form, which requires new public-sector business processes, employee skills and responsibilities, and collaborative labor-management relationships.

By recognizing and capitalizing on the changes and working collaboratively, enlightened labor and agency political leadership can increase public employees’ productivity and produce more accountability from private partners, state and local governments. But it will not be an easy task.

First, elected officials and union leaders need to recognize that the status quo simply cannot be maintained. Agencies with adversarial labor-management relationships increase the risk that they will be unable to hire the new employees they need and maximize the potential of current ones. We need collaborative labor-management relationships in order to maximize the productivity of the work force.

Second, successful, collaborative labor-management relationships require political appointees and union leaders to develop trust based on a vision of a new future of more effective public service delivery while at the same time addressing past and present problems.

The political appointee must realize that, without trust, unions cannot lead their members to engage in the hard work of improving effectiveness through reorganizations, creating new business processes, infusing new technology into the workplace, and potentially downsizing and outsourcing. And union leaders must understand that a political appointee cannot satisfactorily address all past problems before engaging in the hard work of creating a new future.

Third, the parties must develop new roles. Political appointees must not only focus on public policy creation, but also spend time on public policy implementation — improving the performance of public servants. And union leaders must not only police the collective bargaining agreement, but also accept responsibility for improving employee satisfaction through the inclusion of bargaining unit employees in the design of new business processes, the definition of new technology needs, and the redesign of organizational structures that help the effective delivery of public service.

Fourth, the focus of both parties must be on improved performance in delivering public value, rather than a narrow and often outdated approach limited to arguing about what the contract requires. In an adversarial labor-management relationship, the focus is on rules and what is negotiable, not the solving of problems. In contrast, inclusion, involvement and problem-solving are the goals of a collaborative relationship.

Today the work of government is more complex, and managing the work through networks of providers is more difficult. We need political appointees and union leaders who recognize that filing grievances and outsourcing antiquated systems will not improve performance. Collaborative labor- management relationships can unlock valuable human capital and create satisfying professional opportunities that produce better public service.

Stephen Goldsmith is the director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Robert Tobias is director of the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation at American University.

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