Building Coalitions ECQ
During the course of my career, I have successfully built and maintained coalitions and communicated with diverse groups as a trainer, manager, negotiator, speaker, facilitator, or member of a taskforce. I have also created and maintained a vast professional network that I often leverage to build alliances and gain support of key programs and initiatives. In fact, I did exactly that while serving as a Senior Policy Specialist and negotiator with the United States (U.S.) Safety and Transportation Board (USSTO).
My challenge was to obtain special salary rates for more than 3,500 patent professionals as part of an overall recruitment strategy. Complicating this effort was the fact that all employees hired with specialized patent experience were eligible to become patent agents in the private sector after obtaining three years of patent experience. Many individuals took advantage of this option, thereby creating a revolving door for new hires. These employees could immediately demand six-figure salaries and a full benefits package; however, at the time, the agency could only offer its patent professional employees a medium income, benefits package, and a few other government benefits.
To make matters worse, the labor union was highly active and the relationship seemed to be adversarial by default. Regardless of what issue the USSTO brought to the table (including special salary rates), the labor union would report issues to the press in the midst of negotiations. Needless to say, this was highly counterproductive and hindered my efforts to obtain special salary rates. Additionally, the union’s actions placed the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in a very awkward position by having the results of negotiations announced before they were final. The patent side of the USSTO wanted to go paperless, but the union was opposed because members thought that employees would be expected to process patents faster, creating more work in the same amount of time. There was already a backlog in patents. The USSTO obviously wanted to handle issues internally with the union, and wanted the labor union to stop involving the press.
I began by building productive relationships with the head of the agency, labor union officials, OPM, Public Affairs, and Human Resources (HR) officials by reaching out to them to share the agency’s vision and goals regarding the special salary rates. I then communicated the requirements for obtaining special salary rates to the union and agency officials, advocating the agency’s position to OPM and the union. My goal was to obtain buy-in, build consensus, and overcome objections raised by the union during the negotiation process to ultimately obtain special salary rates for affected employees.
As one of the key negotiators between the USSTO and the union, I was keenly aware of the politics at play. Some parties had hidden agendas and differing viewpoints; at the end of the day, however, we all wanted what was best for both the agency and its employees. To unify stakeholders, I partnered with management and union officials to identify their competing interests and balance the needs of both parties, provided insights on how agencies justify and obtain special salary rates, and facilitated the process with OPM. During this period, I also partnered with economists at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and collaborated with them to conduct extensive research for pay comparability for patent professionals or like positions in the private sector. I then developed a comprehensive business case for approval of the special salary rate that included adjustments in five different patent professional occupational series and provided pay parity for employees performing similar duties that would enable the agency to obtain the concessions sought from the union.
Ultimately, I played a key leadership role in negotiating a win-win solution between all parties that included complex , often-daily negotiations over the course of several months and a number of concessions. As a result of my direct intervention, diplomatic negotiation skills, in-depth knowledge of the organizational culture, and sterling reputation as an honest broker, I obtained special salary rates covering all 3,500 employees. A recruitment bonus I proposed for patent professionals was also approved by the head of the agency and the union as an additional incentive for the mission-critical positions. The USSTO was better equipped to recruit and retain the patent professionals that enabled it to grant patents in a timely and efficient manner as mandated by Congress. Finally, my leadership and actions helped reduce the agency’s attrition rate from 25% prior to approval of the special salary rates, to just below 10%. This alone was a significant achievement, since previous attrition rates had at one point spiked as high as 35% in the first two years of employment.
Building teams and coalitions on a wide range of issues is an integral part of my role as the current Acting Director of the Merit Systems Protection Board, Office of Financial and Administrative Management. One of my greatest challenges has been implementing a replacement Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone system and associated technology assets to replace the agency’s antiquated phone network across nine geographically separated facilities. Further, this effort has been complicated by agency and senior executives’ competing priorities, limited funding, end-of-year procurements, the latest technology, and the inability to upgrade the existing telephone system. The existing phone network has caused highly important contact with judges, appellants, appellant representatives, and officials from other agencies to be lost on a recurring basis, which has had a disastrous effect on the agency’s overall ability to communicate with the public.
To mitigate these challenges and build a coalition of willing participants, I led and facilitated several meetings with senior leaders to discuss the financial and logistical aspects of this critical project. I also led and coordinated the efforts of Information Technology (IT) specialists, facilities management, and the procurement staff to benchmark other agencies with similar telephone systems. To build a business case, I partnered with experts from other agencies who had successfully completed similar projects to obtain guidance as well as discuss lessons learned and best practices. With this additional information and insight, I developed a realistic strategy to implement the conversion to the new telephone system, ensuring backwards compatibility with existing systems.
As a result of my leadership in convincing stakeholders of the importance of implementing the VoIP system, I have gained approval for $400K and the agency is currently positioned to move forward with this critical and high-impact initiative. Although the effort is ongoing, the new telecommunications system will provide the public with more efficient access to agency personnel. For instance, there will be a main number for the entire agency with extensions for all employees throughout the U.S. Finally, the new telephone system will save money through more efficient, energy-saving technology and allow for more integration between agency telecommunications and computer systems.