Federal HR Chiefs Embracing Change

News Updates

A recent survey of the federal government’s chief human capital officers (CHCOs) pointed to an attitude shift among the top-level public-sector HR executives who report that they are now embracing change rather than merely preparing for its impact.

“Embracing change was a common thread we uncovered when interviewing CHCOs for this study,” said John Palguta, vice president of policy for the Partnership for Public Service. “It struck us as a definitive shift from previous studies when CHCOs and other federal HR executives had reported that their main focus was preparing for change.”

The study, Embracing Change: CHCOs Rising to the Challenge of an Altered Landscape, was released in late May 2014. To compile the report, researchers with the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization with the mission to revitalize the federal government, and the consulting group Grant Thornton LLP, conducted in-depth interviews with 62 top-level HR executives in the federal government.

“What we discovered from 2012 [the date of the last study] is that CHCOs are now working in an altered landscape much like a dried lava flow,” said Palguta. “Now that the lava has cooled, they have had to rise to the challenge of negotiating this new reality.”

The latest report is the fifth in a series of surveys, dating back to 2007, which attempt to take the pulse of the federal government’s HR function.

“I’m very optimistic with the results of this study. It shows that the HR community is ready to step forward and lead,” said T. Michael Kerr, assistant secretary for administration and management at the U.S. Department of Labor, during a webcast panel discussion of the report’s results. “Our biggest asset is the federal workforce. We have demanded a lot from them and they responded, and I know that they still can do amazing things.”

Budgetary Challenges

According to Kerr and other panel members, 2012 and 2013 presented huge challenges to federal HR managers as Congress squabbled over reducing the federal deficit. The rancorous debate led up to the budget crisis known as sequestration and then a partial shutdown of the federal government for more than two weeks in October 2013.

In the report, the HR leaders identified the top challenges they face and must overcome to ensure that the federal workforce remains productive and engaged. A key challenge, not surprisingly, is how to deal with “diminished, unpredictable and inflexible budgets.” The report found that “none of the interviewees said more funding alone would fix all the problems,” and pointed to a lack of flexibility to manage federal agency workforces within current budget constraints.

The best responses to inflexible budgets, according to the report, is reinvesting in training and development of federal workers and finding ways to make the budgetary process more predictable.

“Agencies and the federal CHCO Council should continue partnering to identify more cost-effective training and development options, particularly those making better use of technology and involving greater cross-agency collaboration,” the report recommended.

“One complaint that I hear over and over again is that working in the federal government is so different and that no one in the private sector would ever understand the challenges we face,” said Ned Holland, assistant secretary for administration at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “I worked in HR in the private sector for 41 years before working with the government. It’s not all that different. The private sector has to work within uncertain and inflexible budgets too.”

Hiring Processes for the Digital Age

Outdated hiring processes and an overabundance of red tape is another key challenge identified in the report. Most of the laws and regulations governing how federal agencies recruit and hire are more than 25 years old. Participants in the study noted that hiring in the digital age is much different, and the way that federal agencies recruit, screen and hire workers reflects policies and procedures developed before the advent of the Internet.

“Federal agencies are trying to recruit and hire a workforce for the 21st century by using 20th century processes,” said Palguta. “The current procedures for hiring were developed when people would go to their local post office, look at posted federal job openings, and then submit a resume and application. With this process, an agency was lucky if they got 25 or 30 applicants. Today, job listings appear online and there can be thousands of applicants, but still HR staffs have to manage all applicants with the same processes developed 40 years ago.”

Some of the CHCOs interviewed for the report stated that it would take an act of Congress to change the hiring laws and regulations. However, the Partnership’s webcast panel disagreed that it is completely incumbent on Congress to act.

“My definition of a good HR manager is someone who knows the hiring rules cold and knows they don’t work and are willing to try new things,” Kerr said. “There’s actually a lot of room to make some changes and tweak the policies and procedures.”

The panel members agreed that the way federal agencies follow hiring procedures often depends on interpreting laws and regulations and that some are adhering to possibly outdated policies simply out of complacency.

“I have asked, ‘Why is it done this way?’ And more than once the reply has been, ‘Because that’s the way we’ve always done it,’” said Holland. “So we have several levels to work through here. One is tradition and policy, which can easily be changed. Then, there are regulations, which an agency can amend or revise, and finally there’s the legislative fix, which must come from Congress.”

Holland and Kerr said they have updated and implemented improvements in their departments’ hiring procedures by changing policies and tweaking some rules.

“It really is a matter of figuring out what needs to be done and then following through to make sure the changes are made,” Kerr said.

HR Improvements Needed

In addition, the report identified strengthening HR infrastructure and the federal government’s HR workforce as top challenges. “The quality and capabilities of the HR workforce factor into how well agencies can manage the federal workforce,” the report stated.

During the webcast, Palguta acknowledged that the White House had listed HR management among the six mission-critical skills needed in the federal government. He also said that the budget proposal for fiscal year 2015 included several goals to improve government’s HR skills base and infrastructure. The recommendations offered in the report mirror some of the goals included in the budget proposal—such as updating federal HR management systems and then training staff to use these systems effectively.

“Many agencies are working to transition away from paper-based systems, and several have made the complete switch,” Palguta said. “The White House has made it clear that one goal is to provide HR staffs with the skills and tools they need to do their jobs. It’s clear from this report that the federal CHCOs are embracing the goals and changes proposed by the president and now stand ready to re-engage and reinvigorate the federal workforce.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.

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