Forks, Knives, and Coffee Cups

These three kitchen items might not appear to have much to do with employee engagement. However, as we exit 2014 and enter another year of opportunity and challenge on the employee engagement front, these items are very central to the current debate and necessity to proactively address and improve Employee Viewpoint Survey (EVS) engagement scores.

Specifically, a December 23, 2014 GAO decision (File: B-326021) overturned an arbitrator’s decision to honor a memorandum of understanding enabling the National Weather Service to provide disposable plates, cups, and cutlery for employees. An arbitrator issued an opinion on December 19, 2013 supporting the purchase of these items as they could help Commerce maintain a healthy work environment and employee sickness could be an inconvenience to the agency. Further, the arbitrator noted that employees might spend less time away from their work stations if they were provided disposable items rather than having to wash non-disposable items in break rooms.

Seems like a reasonable decision and one that promotes engagement in addition to a healthy and productive work environment.

On the other hand, the National Weather Service’s acting chief financial officer directed management to stop purchasing the disposable items because it is illegal to use appropriated funds to purchase items for the personal convenience, comfort, or protection of employees. This directive was based on a 1924 decision of the Comptroller General, issued during the Calvin Coolidge Administration.

The GAO decision banning these purchases relies on statute stipulating that any such purchase has to advance the agency mission and that the benefit accruing to the agency has to clearly outweigh the ancillary benefit to the employee.

An appeal requiring the expenditure of additional taxpayer funds will now follow the GAO decision.

Is engagement related to agency mission?

This scenario clearly illustrates the debate surrounding the focus on employee engagement and how enhanced engagement supports desired agency outcomes. Sure, the disposable kitchen items were purchased as part of an H1N1 flu preparedness plan of action. However, in the spirit of the time-tested Hawthorne studies conducted at Western Electric, one could fashion an argument that the cutlery and cups are a negligible expense that does support the agency mission by “putting a spring in the step” of employees. That is, when attention is provided to employees, there is empirical evidence that productivity increases. Consequently, whether or not the disposable items support flu prevention, there is a dimension of improving engagement and consequently agency mission.

Looking at this issue in another way, the question has to be asked: what does the disposable item intervention cost on a per employee basis? The equation looks like this: (Walmart cost of disposable forks, knives, plates, and hot/cold cups [$598.30 for a one time supply of 5,000 units per item]) / 5,000 (# of National Weather Service employees) = $.12 (12 cents) per employee. How many other engagement interventions can be acquired for an investment of a few cents per employee? In fact, the arbitration, GAO review, and appeal will cost more than the one-time cost of these items.

Three fundamental issues

  1. Should the acting CFO have relied on a 1924 decision to support the directive?
  2. When will engagement be unequivocally understood and recognized as fundamentally central to achieving world class public service and improved EVS results?
  3. When will leaders be fully trained in leadership practices and held accountable for facilitating decisions that support engagement (particularly when the costs are so negligible)?

There is a reason why the current Administration has a People & Culture initiative. It’s simple: nothing gets done without people. Therefore, a motivated and engaged workforce is central to agency mission and provides high levels of service to the taxpayer. Whether or not the GAO decision is fundamentally sound (which we will find out upon appeal), there must be a hard look at the state of human capital strategy if this decision is representative of what is occurring inside our federal agencies. Given the state of EVS trends and recent results, we should not be reading about decisions banning the purchase of cutlery; rather, investments in the public sector workforce.

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