Issue Briefs

Following is a recent article in an MSPB publication warning against eliminating training of federal employees as a short-run cost saving step.

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Recent months have seen the once-unlikely prospect of sequestration become a reality. They have also seen intense—and, regrettably, perfectly understandable—scrutiny of certain training and conferences attended by Federal employees. Together, these events have prompted many Federal agencies to become more vigilant when reviewing requests for training and less likely to approve those requests.

On the one hand, such caution is appropriate. Good stewardship requires that agencies avoid expenditures of funds and employees’ time that do not serve a clear public purpose and provide a reasonable return on investment. Good stewardship also involves attention to appearances. The ability of Federal agencies and Federal employees to carry out public business depends not only on their statutory authority but also on their perceived competence and integrity.

On the other hand, efforts to prevent excesses may inadvertently increase the risk that agencies will invest too little in employee training and development. If that happens, Federal Government operations will become less efficient and effective. Previous MSPB research shows that the risk is real. As noted in our 2012 report Managing Public Employees in the Public Interest, the proportion of Federal employees agreeing with the statement, “I need more training to perform my job effectively” has increased substantially over time, from 32 percent in 1992 to 48 percent in 2005.

In the current environment, Federal agencies—and stakeholders—should be particularly watchful for two impediments to investment in employees. The first impediment is a shortage of resources. When budgets are tight, training is a common target for reduction or elimination. In the short term, limiting training may have little effect on mission accomplishment or efficiency. Existing skills and knowledge, accompanied by stopgap measures to keep employees abreast of new developments in their fields, may suffice. The immediate effects on employee retention may appear negligible. Yet, the long-term consequence of underinvestment in employees may well be an erosion of morale, workforce capability, mission accomplishment, and the ability to recruit and retain good employees.

The second impediment is a surplus of oversight. Reasonable controls and accountability are necessary. Yet agencies should scrutinize controls, and not just expenditures, to ensure that anticipated benefits outweigh expected costs. Too many justification and documentation requirements may be as harmful as too few, even if the harm is less visible or newsworthy. First, they may discourage organizations and employees from pursuing valuable or essential training. Second, they may divert the attention of management and staff in line organizations away from the mission. Third, they may divert staff in functions such as budget, acquisition, and human resources away from matters of greater financial and operational importance. Finally, they may unintentionally make employee training and development more costly.

For example, tuition and travel become more expensive when an organization cannot move quickly enough to take advantage of early registration discounts, purchase fares, and other savings.

The seventh merit principle states that, “Employees should be provided training in cases in which such training would result in better individual and organizational performance.” Those remain words for Federal agencies to live by, and they serve as a caution against seeking short-term savings in training while forfeiting substantial long-term benefits. The challenge advance is not only to prevent excesses, but also to avoid false economies.