DHS Shutdown Twofer: Burning Money and Morale at the Same Time

It is hard to open a newspaper or go to a news site on the Internet without seeing a story about the impending shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security. Like most everything in our modern political discourse, we see extreme views, uncivil behavior and more misinformation than information. Here is some real information about what is going on: Money is being wasted and employee morale in DHS is being harmed (yes, it can still get worse).

Shutdown is Not Free. I have been stunned to hear people saying there is no harm in talking about a shutdown, particularly if the House and Senate make a deal to avert it. Shutting down a department with 230,000 military and civilian employees takes planning. People I am talking with at DHS have been involved intensely for the past couple of weeks in the planning process to execute a shutdown order. The department and its components have to decide who works and who stays home. They have to decide which contracts can continue to be executed and which have to stop work. They have to decide which grant programs are stopped and how (while localities that rely on that money are out of luck). They have to decide how to notify all of the employees. They have to talk with the unions who represent employees. They have to answer inquiries from OMB, OPM, the House, the Senate, the Press, and the public, and most of all, the workforce. While they are doing all of that, they have to continue normal operations of the department. All of the shutdown activity consumes resources and time that should be focused on the mission. Those resources are wasted. The time is gone and can never be recovered. I have actually been told by some folks that DHS should not waste time preparing for a shutdown, because it is not likely to happen. The same folks said that in 2013 and we saw what happened. DHS is preparing because it has no choice. Its mission is vital to our security and failing to prepare for an orderly shutdown would be irresponsible.

How Much Can We Abuse the DHS Workforce? Anyone who pays attention to Federal workforce issues knows DHS has morale problems. They began when the Department was hastily thrown together in 2003 without proper planning and continue to this day. DHS leaders are taking steps to make things better for the workforce, but it is difficult (maybe impossible) to bring up morale in DHS when 30,000 people are told to go home without pay and wait until the political fighting is over and the remainder are told to come to work without pay until the shutdown is over. Nobody will be paying their bills for them. They are on their own. DHS employees I have spoken with are angry. They resent being put in this position, are offended that their mission is put at risk over politics, and question whether remaining in DHS is worth it. The effect on morale is made worse by the fact that it is the mission that is being put at risk. DHS has morale issues, but it certainly does not have “commitment to the mission” problems. The DHS workforce recognizes the importance of their work. They are committed to the mission and to serving the American people. It is a good workforce, made up of dedicated men and women who will do what is needed to accomplish the mission. If they are told to show up without pay, they will do it. If they are told their training may be delayed or canceled because of the shutdown, they will live with it. If they cannot get the contract support they need, they will find a temporary way to make do. They will do that because they care. Because they are committed. Because they are the type of workforce any employer would be proud to have. But make no mistake, they can be broken. Their dedication can be crushed, and at some point the mission of DHS will be at great risk of failure. I do not think we are there yet, but we cannot risk getting much closer.


What Does it Mean When the Government “Closes” Due to Weather?

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A lot of people in the Washington, DC metro area saw the news they were looking for on Tuesday. The government is “Closed.” For most Federal workers, it means a snow day. Time home with the family, not having to worry about child care (because the schools are closed too), and an opportunity to either play in the snow or shovel it. But – what does “Closed” really mean?

When the government “closes” it does not really close. Much like it does not shut down during a shutdown, there are vital services that simply must go on, and they do. If you go to Dulles International Airport today, you will find Transportation Security Officers at the checkpoints and in baggage screening. You will find Customs and Border Protection Officers on the job working with both passengers and cargo. If you go to any of the military installations in the area, safety, security and fire personnel will be on the job. Many other people in jobs that cannot stop just because some snow fell will be at work. They know the job they signed up for, and most of them do not complain about having to go to work.

The rules have been the same for many years – the “emergency” employees show up regardless of the weather. But something has changed in recent years. Now we have thousands of employees who telework. Depending on the terms of their telework agreement and their union contract (for bargaining unit employees), many people who are on approved telework agreements do not get the day off. They are expected to put in a full days work at home and get no benefit from the government being “closed.” Is that fair? Given that the government supports telework for a lot of good reasons (including reducing traffic, saving on office rent and giving employees their commute time back), should it ask the people who have signed up to do what the government wants (teleworkers) to work when the people who do not or cannot telework get the day off? Yes, it should.

One other key reason for telework – one that I believe is among the strongest arguments for a mobile workforce – is continuity of operations. Snow storms, hurricanes, tornados and other acts of God can cause problems for far longer than a day or two. Acts of man, such as terrorist attacks, can cause long-term emergencies where the ability of the government to continue to operate is crucial to our nation’s security and economic interests. We have already had examples of agencies that continued to provide services in disasters such as Superstorm Sandy. The ability of people to work from home or another remote location is in our interest and it is a very good thing. So I view days like today as dry runs for the day when we may need a dispersed workforce continuing to do the people’s work even when a natural or man-made disaster strikes.

Is it fair? When we consider all of the hours of commuting that telework saves, yes. People who save 2 or more hours every day they telework only have to telework 4 days to save enough time to make up for a day like today. In the big scheme of things, that is not a bad deal.



The DHS Budget Debate – Shutdown Sequel?

The Secretary of Homeland Security says he would have to furlough 30,000 workers if nothing is done to resolve the DHS budget impasse. The Associated Press ran a story today called Fact Check: What Are the Risks if Homeland Security Shuts Down? Reading the AP story, which says “the reality is that a department shutdown would have a very limited impact on national security,” you might conclude that no budget and a DHS “Shutdown” are no big deal. The AP says “Mostly administrative staff, including support workers at headquarters and personnel who do training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers, employees involved in research and development, and those responsible for operating and maintaining the E-Verify system that allows businesses to check the immigration status of new hires.” That means the Border Patrol will keep working. So will the Secret Service, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and TSA.

So – are they right? Yes and no. Yes, because the description of who will and will not stay home is accurate. No, because there is a lot more to it than just who stays home and who goes to work. Let’s start with the people who go to work. They will not get paid for the time they work after the appropriations lapse until the budget is resolved. If you have plenty of money, that is no problem. What about those people who do not have a lot of money? Should a Transportation Security Officer with a family and a $40K income lend money to the government in the form of free labor? Who will pay his or her bills in the interim? And is it OK for the government to demand employees work with no guarantee of when they will get paid? A lot of people say we should run government like a business. No business would do that to its workforce.

Why Should You Care About “Admin” Folks?

And what about the people who stay home? It is just a bunch of administrative folks, so who cares? I care, and so should a lot more people. Let’s look at the two examples of “administrative” jobs the AP cited and see what happens when they shut down. First, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC). FLETC trains Law Enforcement Officers (LEOs) in most Federal agencies. Their training programs are highly regarded and form the backbone of the training many LEOs receive. FLETC has limited capacity, so its classes are generally full or close to it. When they lose classes, they cannot just make them up. Their capacity does not magically expand after a shutdown. That means the ability of the government to train new LEOs is harmed. The longer the shutdown, the more potential damage it does. For those who are in the middle of training and who are sent home, their agencies pay for travel in both directions that would not have been necessary. The training is interrupted and the gap may make it less effective.

Another example is E-Verify, the system that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States. During a shutdown, employers cannot:

  • Enroll in E-Verify
  • Verify employment eligibility
  • View or take action on any case
  • Add, delete or edit company information
  • Reset passwords
  • Terminate an account
  • Run reports

All E-Verify customer support services shut down, so:

  • Telephone and e-mail support are not available
  • Employees cannot resolve errors with their status
  • E-Verify webinars and training will stop
  • E-Verify Self Check will no be available

If you are a private sector employer, you still have to comply with the requirements, but if you need a new account for a startup business, you will not be able to get it. If you need training, you will not be able to get it. If you need information to deal with a termination caused by the employee not being eligible for employment in the US, you will not be able to get it.

These are just two examples. There are many more. DHS will not be able to award most contracts. The contracting folks will mostly be stuck at home. DHS will not be able to train most its employees. If will suspend most grant operations, putting dollars that state and local governments and non-government organizations rely on at risk. It will disrupt IT systems, add time and cost to countless projects and operations, and generally make it difficult to do work. If it continues too long, the lack of support functions will seriously impede the Department’s ability to carry out the “exempt” functions that continue even during a shutdown. For example, most HR people will go home. That means no job announcements, no referral lists, no new employees processed on board, and more.

In addition to the direct impact on Federal workers, a DHS shutdown will also affect contractor employees. DHS is likely to tell many companies to send their employees home because DHS cannot continue to pay them – either because the offices where they work are closed, or because they are funded with FY 2015 money. Those employees may not be made whole, because many small businesses cannot afford to pay employees when they are not getting paid by the government.

So – it is not as simple as some folks would have you believe. Shutting down any part of the government is messy and expensive and all of the implications may not be clear until it happens again and lasts a while. The cost of the last shutdown was estimated at $24 billion. Just in salary and benefits alone, the cost of sending 30,000 DHS employees home to do nothing and then paying them when the come back is more than $12 million a day. That does not count the cost of the disruptions to programs and the effect it will have on the already tenuous morale in the Department.

No matter how you look at it, during and after a shutdown, the government spends more and gets less. Shouldn’t we be striving to spend less and get more?

4 Steps Toward a Better Hiring Process

My last post “The Truth About the Hiring Process,” generated a lot of attention. I think a lot of people were surprised to have a former Chief Human Capital Officer agreeing that sometimes managers know who they want and sometimes the process is rigged to get them. I promised to offer some suggestions for bringing more transparency and integrity to the hiring process, so here they are:

  1. Limit applicant questionnaires to initial screening, unless they are proper assessment instruments designed by a qualified Industrial/Organizational Psychologist or similar professional. The questionnaires were a good idea, but they have morphed into something that does not necessarily help the process. It works this way: Applicants answer a lot of questions – some are to determine eligibility to apply and basic qualifications. Others are used to assign scores and decide who among the qualified applicants is referred to the selecting official. If you answer the screening questions the wrong way, you are out. If you answer enough of the rating questions the wrong way, you are out. That leads to some folks stretching a bit (or more) when they answer them. Once they are screened, many agencies have an HR Specialist review the applications of the candidates who receive the top scores. Keep in mind these scores are generally based solely on answers to questions. In effect, the applicants rate themselves. The questionnaires are often recycled from other jobs and are so general that they have little likelihood of predicting how a candidate might be able to perform on the job. Because the entire point of the process is to find the best qualified candidates, that is a big problem.
  2. Limit resumes to 2 or 3 pages. Virtually everyone in the private sector makes initial screening decisions based upon brief resumes. They are a proven tool. Government applications are no longer the 30 and 40 page monsters they used to be, but many of them are still far too long. They encourage people to write too much and make it more difficult to read them. They also encourage applicants to inflate their qualifications.
  3. Put real people back in the applicant review process. It is safe to say that in many agencies most applications are never really read by a human being – only a small number who make it through the automated screening process and are going to go on the referral list are read by a person. In some agencies, even those get only a cursory review. HR offices are not adequately staffed to read the numbers of applications they receive and managers in many agencies have checked out of the applicant screening process, thinking it is HR’s job. When hundreds or even thousands of people apply for a single job, agencies have to find ways to sort through the applications. What most have landed on as a solution is the applicant questionnaire. The technology we use for the hiring process has made it possible for HR offices to operate with fewer people and at a lower cost. The systems make it much easier to advertise jobs and certainly have made the application process less burdensome for applicants. All of those are good things. Where we have a problem is that we allow agencies to rely on them too much. We need to have human beings review applications and make judgment calls that the technology cannot make. A few years ago when I was at DHS I had a conversation with Laszlo Bock, head of People Operations for Google. He runs one of the best HR operations in the country. If you Google Google HR, you will find countless stories about their data driven decision-making and people focus that shows what happens when an organization really starts treating people like their most important resource. Google receives tens of thousands of resumes per week. My first question for Laszlo was “How do you process that many resumes?” The answer was surprising. They read them. Human beings read resumes written by other human beings. It doesn’t take long as long as you might think and it helps ensure they do not lose talented candidates. If one of the biggest names in technology can rely on humans to read resumes, the US government can too. I spent years reading resumes and the old SF-171. It is not that hard. Initial screening of a resume to see if someone is qualified takes a few minutes at most. Seriously. Most do not even take that long for the initial qualified/not qualified call. We also have to put managers and subject-matter experts back in the review process. Hiring and promoting the right people is not a process to dump on the HR folks and then blame them when it does not go well. They can help, but people who are experts in the job to be filled are much better qualified to review applicants. I am always amazed by managers who tell me they don’t have time to worry about people issues, then complain about problem employees, not having the right talent, and HR’s inability to find the people they need. If people are the most important resource any agency or company has, managers need to be spending a lot more of their time on people issues.
  4. Involve rank-and-file employees in the hiring process as subject-matter experts and interviewers. If we want people to trust the process, open it up so more people are involved. We do very little work in isolation. The people we hire work with the people we have already hired and the ones we will hire in the future. Their teamwork is critical to any organization’s success. Let them participate in the process of hiring their teammates and we will see better results, both in the quality of hires and in the trust applicants have in the process.

Restoring confidence in the hiring process is going to take time. These steps will not change it overnight, but they will go a long way toward making the process credible, more manageable, and more likely to result in the government having the talent it needs.

The Truth About the Hiring Process

The truth is most people who apply for a job are not going to be selected.

Two weeks ago I wrote about MSPB’s report on hiring practices. MSPB was concerned that expanded use of special hiring authorities may be adversely effecting opportunities for women and minorities. I encourage anyone who is interested in the Merit System to take a look at the MSPB report. Like all of their studies, it is thoughtful and interesting. I do not always agree with their conclusions, but their research is excellent.

Since the post two weeks ago, I have gotten some questions from people asking about the hiring process.  Is it really a “Merit System?” Do managers know who they want most of the time? Do they and HR rig the process? If not, why do so many people think the process is always rigged? Is it worth it to even apply for a job given the earlier questions? Is there a way to fix it?

I no longer work for the Federal government, so I decided to offer my candid views on those questions, based on 33 years of experience in Federal HR, most of which was in staffing.

Is there really a Merit System? Yes, but Merit is like beauty – it is in the eye of the beholder. When a manager and HR specialist work to fill a job, it is almost always with the intent of finding the best person for the job. But what is the “best?” My priorities and yours may be different, so we might have strongly differing views on what constitutes the best. People disagree on politics, religion, what food tastes good, and just about anything else you can imagine. Why are we surprised when they disagree about who is best qualified for a job. But – there are times when it is apparent to HR that the manager has someone in mind whose qualifications are not readily apparent, but to the hiring manager that person meets his or her requirements for the job. Yes – sometimes that means they are hiring a friend, or colleague, or even someone they have a personal intimate relationship with. Those situations are nowhere near the majority of jobs, but pretending they don’t happen is foolish. They do. And HR cannot always know they are happening. How many people really believe a manager is going to go to HR and say “Hey, can you help me hire this person I’m having an affair with?” The unethical manager in a case like that is not going to advertise it. I have intervened to stop actions like that, and I know a lot of HR folks who have done the same. But they cannot catch all of them and, even when they do, they may not get support from higher-ups in the agency when they try to stop it. Luckily those situations are so few that they do not corrupt the overall Merit System.

Do managers know who they want? Is preselection real? Many times, yes. It is not uncommon for a hiring manager to have a candidate in mind, particularly when the job is being filled through the Merit Promotion Program. In Merit Promotion, they are mostly looking at the people in the organization and making a call based upon their observations of performance. Some folks see that and say it is unfair, but most people also believe organizations should promote from within when they can. So – if the hiring manager wants to promote from within, is s/he corrupting the Merit System? Or is s/he doing a good thing by promoting from within? Keep in mind that when a manager is promoting someone in the organization, s/he knows what they are getting – good and bad. The hiring manager does not have that kind of balanced picture of outside applicants. Those folks are evaluated based on what they say in a resume that may be full of puffery. The hiring manager has no idea what the applicants weaknesses might be, because the applicant does not write about them and does not talk about them in an interview. That leaves the manager with an incomplete view of one applicant (the outsider) and a reasonably complete view of the insider. Combine that doubt with the interest in promoting from within, and it is easy to see why managers make some of the hiring decisions that tilt to inside applicants.  My experience was that the numbers were very different for competitive examining, where managers sometimes knew who they wanted, but to a far lesser degree than for Merit Promotion. Knowing who you might like to promote is not a prohibited personnel practice, but rigging the system to get who you want is.

Do managers rig the system to get who they want? Sometimes, yes. But what constitutes rigging the system? There are many shades of gray in the answer. Let’s say a manager wants someone with a particular type of experience and explains to HR why that is needed (based on the job description). Then we find out the manager’s desired candidate has that experience and most other applicants do not. Is that rigging? Or is it a legitimate requirement based on the duties in the job description? The problem is that it is often hard to know. If the requirement is in the job description, then it might be a case of the manager using the system to get what s/he wants, but it is most likely legal. After all, the manager is using a requirement from an approved job description. Where the problem occurs is when the manager amends the job description to add a requirement that only the preferred candidate is likely to have. I have seen cases where that type of change was made at the same time the job is being advertised. I have also seen cases where HR worked with the manager to do it. Everyone involved in most of those cases could rationalize why it was OK, but some could not. So yes, there are cases where managers rig the system to get who they want. It is a prohibited personnel practice, but it happens. How often? In my experience, managers trying to rig the system were not common, but they were not rare either. The problem is that HR suspecting something is amiss and HR being able to prove it are two very different things.

Why do so many people think the process is always rigged? That is the easiest question of all. Studies show that most people rate themselves in the top 20% of performers. Obviously not everyone can be in the top 20%. The typical job announcement fills one job. It may have 50 or a hundred or even a thousand applicants. If one of those “top 20%” folks applies and does not get selected, it is easy to blame it on a rigged system. The truth is most people who apply for a job are not going to be selected. There are too many applicants and too few jobs for that to happen. So – people are not selected and rather than admitting they may not have been the best candidate, they blame the system, the hiring manager, or HR. That does not make it true, and even if agencies ran a 100% clean process every time, a lot of people would still argue that the system was rigged because the best candidate (i.e., them) was not selected. If you are a Federal employee, you were almost certainly selected for a job at least once (and probably more) where other applicants thought the job was rigged for you. Was it?

Is it worth it to apply? Absolutely. Even with dramatically lower Federal hiring in 2014, agencies hired almost 138,000 new employees. Even if a small percentage of the jobs were rigged, over 100,000 people got hired competitively. My own experience is a good example – when I was selected for my first Personnel Officer job (a GS-14) in DLA, I knew no one in DLA and had zero connections. I just saw a vacancy announcement and applied. I was also selected the same way for my first GS-15 job in GSA and my first SES job at Commerce – agencies where I was an outsider and had no connections. The system may not be squeaky clean all the time, but a lot of people compete – fair and square – and get selected.

Can it be fixed? Yes, and my next post will cover my recommendations for bring more transparency and integrity to the hiring process.




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