April 13, 2004

Workers skeptical of team efforts in OPM competition

By Amelia Gruber

Mailroom workers with jobs on the line in a small public-private competition at the Office of Personnel Management said Monday they feel agency managers have prevented them from putting their best foot forward. The contest will end late this week.

OPM required civil servants vying for 13 full-time mail processing positions to form an in-house team, called a "most efficient organization," and defend the work against contractors. In theory, the formation of teams allows government employees to submit the most efficient and competitive work plan possible, giving them the best chance at winning a contest.

But in practice, the mailroom workers had little if any chance to help shape the in-house team's strategy, said John Zottoli, president of AFGE Local 32, the union branch representing OPM employees. The agency did not involve any of the workers affected by the competition in forming the plan, he said. Instead, managers acted on the mailroom workers' behalf.

In an interview with Government Executive on Monday, three longtime mail services employees said they do not trust agency managers. After announcing the streamlined competition in December 2003, managers visited employees with jobs on the line on several occasions and explained the competitive sourcing process.

But the workers left the sessions skeptical. "They're not telling us the real deal behind it," said one mailroom employee. The worker, who joined OPM in 1968, referred to communications from management as "smoke and mirrors."

He added that he sees the competition as a political ploy. "The truth is, management doesn't care," he said.

Another employee said she is afraid that the managers creating the in-house plan will use the competition as an excuse to downsize the workforce. She added that the entire contest has distracted her from her job and worried her so much that she sees a counselor on occasion to relieve her stress.

"We're doing what we can to communicate and be up front [with employees involved in competitions]," said Clarence Crawford, OPM's associate director for management. He added that he could understand why the employees are nervous, but said OPM workers' excellent track record of winning contests should provide some comfort.

By allowing employees to form an in-house team, OPM helps them submit the strongest bid possible, said Ronald Flom, a senior procurement expert at OPM. In some instances, the agency does let employees with jobs on the line in a competition help develop the in-house bid, he said.

Even when affected employees are not directly involved in the process, managers acting on their behalf are very familiar with the work and have the employees' best interests in mind, Flom said. "If anything, the MEO works in favor of the [federal employees]," Crawford added, saying that OPM uses competitions as an opportunity to "ensure we're doing our jobs as efficiently as possible."

Federal employee unions backed language in the fiscal 2004 omnibus appropriations act requiring certain agencies, including OPM, to let in-house workers form teams in all job competitions involving more than 10 positions. The provision gives civil servants a better shot at prevailing in contests conducted using streamlined procedures in the Office of Management and Budget's May 2003 version of Circular A-76, the rule book on competitive sourcing, union officials said.

The omnibus requirement is a good idea, as long as agencies implement it properly and don't rely on management too heavily to form the in-house bid, Zottoli said. "How OPM is choosing to do this [in the mailroom workers' case],

I think, is fraught with risks," he said.