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The Federal Government’s Top HR Execs Speak Out

This article appeared in the Aug/Sep print issue of PA TIMES.

Bob Lavigna

The Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton LLP recently published “Closing the Gap: Seven Obstacles to a First-Class Federal Workforce,” the latest in a series of reports dating back to 2007 that summarize interviews with the federal government’s senior HR executives, the Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCOs). This year, the interviews–with 68 CHCOs and other key HR leaders–focused on how to bridge the gap between today’s government workforce policies and practices, and what they should be in the future.

While Closing the Gap focuses on the federal government, I think the results and lessons also apply to other levels of government. The story line that emerged from the interviews focused on how to achieve seven major HR goals:

  • A nimble, modern system to recruit and hire a diverse and productive 21st century workforce.
  • The ability to attract, fairly compensate, reward, motivate and retain the right people with the right skills.
  • The federal government’s central HR agency, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), as a trusted advisor and resource.
  • HR professionals with the ability to think and manage strategically and be true business partners.
  • Technology and processes that streamline operations and produce the data and results needed to manage effectively.
  • Trained and capable leaders who inspire and bring out the best in the workforce.
  • A shared vision and collaboration between managers and unions.

In general, the HR execs agreed that efforts to build and maintain a high quality workforce are being seriously hindered by longstanding, systemic and often dysfunctional practices and policies. As is so often the case, however, the easy part is agreeing on the goals and what needs to be fixed, such as the broken hiring process. The hard part is actually fixing it.

It’s no surprise that one obstacle is arcane hiring systems. The complexity of hiring often creates a situation where only those already in government can navigate the system. “We only end up hiring people who are already familiar with the system. We end up just cannibalizing each other.” The Obama administration is trying to solve this longstanding problem through plans to make the process more applicant-friendly, eliminate essay-style application questions, improve the speed and quality of hiring, and more fully involve managers and supervisors in recruiting and hiring.

But the CHCOs have strong doubts that HR professionals, the people on the frontlines implementing hiring and other reforms, are up to the task. For example, almost half (46 percent) of the executives said their HR folks either do not have needed competencies or only have these capabilities to a limited extent.

As one CHCO warned, “They want us to hire all these people, but HR itself does not have the skill set.” Plus, the CHCOs said they don’t have enough resources train HR staff.

While there was agreement on these and other challenges, there was less agreement on the solutions. The CHCOs believe that bridging the gap from where government is today to where it needs to go will require more resources and a sustained commitment from top political and career leaders.

“Quick and bad is not the solution.” Hiring reform should be grounded in merit system principles and public policy goals and requirements such as diversity and veterans’ preference. But agencies should be accountable for results, not just processes.

Nearly all CHCOs interviewed stressed that it’s critical to involve managers in the hiring process–from beginning to end. “I don’t hire people, managers do,” said a respondent. “We can enable reform, but it will be management’s implementation that drives it.”

When “faster and better” are potentially competing goals for hiring and other reform efforts, the priority should be given to “better.” While speed is important in key areas like hiring, getting the right end result–like a quality hire–is more important, even if it takes time.

The track record for pay reform is spotty at best, but government must do better. CHCOs recognized that this portion of the reform “bridge” could be the toughest to engineer and build, but they agreed that the status quo prevents government from being a model employer. Problems include a dysfunctional position classification system; frequently non-competitive entry-level pay plus pay compression at higher levels; lack of a level playing field where some agencies can pay more than others for the same jobs; and a need to know more about why past efforts at pay-for-performance failed.

But several respondents also emphasized the need to take a broader look at compensation and rewards–beyond money. Most people who work in government are not motivated by money, but by a call to serve. “We’ve got a good thing going: who we are. We need to tout that a bit more and people will come. The whole thing around being competitive with the private sector is not going to work. People who work for the government want to serve.”

Promoting work-life balance is also an important tool in attracting, motivating and retaining talent. “We are seeing a change in attitude among applicants,” observed on interviewee. “They select agencies that offer more work-life benefits.”
HR leaders want greater collaboration and sharing within government and with other stakeholders to build the bridge to a more effective workforce.

CHCOs want a more collaborative partnership with OPM, and also want more cross-agency collaboration with the other C-suite communities (e.g., chief financial officers, chief information officers and chief acquisition officers); more involvement by employee unions and other stakeholders in civil service reform; and more cross-agency sharing among HR offices (e.g., sharing information on highly qualified applicants for common jobs).

HR metrics are an important part of the equation. Reliable, timely information also is important both to manage the workforce and better understand HR’s impact. As one CHCO said, “What you measure is what people pay attention to.” As the following chart shows, measurement is a problem–fewer than 50 percent of respondents said that they can measure HR’s effectiveness to a great or very great extent.

We also asked CHCOs which metrics they currently use, which measures are helpful and which others are needed.

Most interviewees stressed that metrics should focus on customer needs–not just the speed of processes, but the quality of outcomes. “My customers measure me better than I measure myself.” Specifically, the focus should shift from transactions to end results. “Right now,” said one CHCO, “we measure process, not outcome. We do a lot of tracking, but impact is hard to measure.” While process metrics are the easiest to quantify and communicate, the most important metrics focus on outcomes such as the quality of hires.

Line managers need better skills. According to the CHCOs, management skills are increasingly important in government, but are often lacking. In 2008, only 44 percent of CHCOs said line managers have the leadership skills they need to be successful; in 2010, that number actually declined to 32 percent. “Leadership is the most important thing–specifically how you treat people.”

Another CHCO said, “The reason most people leave an organization is because of their direct supervisor. There is a difference between being the top shining star in your technical role and leading a group of people who are shining stars.”

Bridging the Gap between Goals and Reality
So how do the HR leaders think these challenges should be addressed? Closing the Gap includes specific recommendations based on the interviews:

Hiring reform.

  • Validated applicant assessment tools are crucial to improve hiring, and agencies need help developing cost-effective assessment solutions.
  • Agencies want more, not fewer, hiring flexibilities; and managers need to be more involved in recruiting and hiring. But this will require a culture change in many agencies.
  • Veterans preference in hiring is important, but being held accountable for results (e.g., percentage of veterans hired) is better than rigid process requirements. Successful ways to increase actual hiring opportunities for veterans include “hiring heroes” job fairs, interagency partnerships, using interns and volunteers to allow managers to see veterans in action, and using current employees who are veterans recruit other veterans.
  • Measuring progress, including on issues such as diversity and veterans preference, should be based on agreed-upon and results-oriented metrics, not just processes.

Pay reform and performance management. While CHCOs and other HR leaders were dissatisfied with the status quo, there was less agreement about the way forward. Quite a few execs said that their performance management systems already link individual employee performance to mission requirements, but only a handful think their systems could support pay-for-performance. There was consensus, however, around two points:

  • There is little support for the current position classification system. More than one interviewee thought it should be “blown up” and replaced with a more flexible approach that provides broader job categories.
  • There is still strong support for pay-banding, but less support for tying pay closely to performance.


Training and developing managers and supervisors.
The majority feel their agencies were still under-investing in training and development, especially for managers and supervisors. The major recommendations:

  • Although most agencies expect tighter budgets, CHCOs want to maintain the commitment to training and development, especially for managers and supervisors, by safeguarding or even increasing funding for training.
  • This training and development should include mentoring or coaching programs for managers and supervisors.
  • Leadership institutes and related programs that enable managers and supervisors to interact with peers from other organizations are also valuable.

Work-life balance. Most agencies are already using work-life flexibilities, especially alternative work schedules. The one flexibility with perhaps the greatest potential for expansion is telework. The biggest barriers to telework are organizational culture, particularly a management mindset against telework; and information technology, including both concerns about data security and lack of equipment or networks to support telework.

The HR execs support a gradual expansion of work-life flexibilities, especially telework, by focusing on management awareness and training and investing in IT infrastructure.

Improving the HR workforce. There was almost unanimous agreement that too many HR professionals do not have the skills and competencies they need. And this is getting worse, not better. To fix this:

  • The HR workforce needs to be the focus of a concentrated and coordinated long term improvement effort.
  • As the central HR agency for government and the president’s HR advisor, OPM should champion this improvement effort.
  • It starts with hiring–agencies need to actively recruit and hire people who have HR interest and talent.
  • There need to be a clear path for HR development based on agreed-upon competencies–and experience in more than one HR office and more than one functional area.
  • There need to clear performance standards and metrics for HR, and accountability for results. And an expectation that HR staff members who do not perform will be fired.

The ability of government agencies, at all levels, to meet the unprecedented range of challenges they face depends on whether they have the right talent. As the federal HR executives candidly described in these interviews, making government a true employer of choice over the long term will require new ways to look at how to attract, develop and retain talent. In other words, new ways to bridge the gap between what is, and what should be.

To download the report, go to: http://ourpublicservice.org/OPS/publication/viewcontentdetails.php?id=147

ASPA member Bob Lavigna is assistant vice chancellor-HR at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was formerly vice president of research for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. Email: [email protected]

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About Bob Lavigna

ASPA member Bob Lavigna is assistant vice chancellor-HR at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was formerly vice president of research for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.

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