Is Half a Workforce Strategy Better Than None?

3d human with a red question markFederal agencies are getting more and more pressure to create workforce strategies. OMB’s Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act guidance requires it. The Department of Defense has a statutory requirement to report its workforce plans to Congress.  Whether it is called a Human Capital Strategic Plan, Workforce Strategy, Workforce Plan, or something else, it usually takes the form of some projection of an agency’s civil service workforce requirements. Workforce plans can be simple documents that project the numbers, types and grades of positions the agency expects to need, or grand wish lists that fantasize about the huge budget increases the agency wants to support its ideal workforce of the future. I have seen both types, along with everything in between.

One problem we see is that most workforce plans address only the federal employee side of the mix. Agencies often go into great detail when they identify the skills and competencies they need for their own employees, then do very little to identify what they need when they use contractors to do the work. The result, particularly in segments of organizations that rely on a mix of Feds and contractors, is half a plan. Regardless of your opinion on the federal employee/contractor issue, it is clear that agencies need to do a better job of planning for their workforce requirements.  A good workforce plan, supported by skill and competency requirements for every job, not just the federal positions, would make it far easier for an agency to meet those requirements. It is no wonder that agencies have trouble recruiting when much of their hiring is on autopilot – simply filling jobs as they become vacant or as a manager decides to create them.

The Defense Department requirement is actually a good idea. It calls for:

(2) A plan of action for developing and reshaping the civilian employee workforce of the Department to address the gaps in critical skills and competencies identified under paragraph (1)(D), including—
(A) specific recruiting and retention goals, especially in areas identified as critical skills and competencies under paragraph (1), including the program objectives of the Department to be achieved through such goals and the funding needed to achieve such goals;
(B) specific strategies for developing, training, deploying, compensating, and motivating the civilian employee workforce of the Department, including the program objectives of the Department to be achieved through such strategies and the funding needed to implement such strategies;
(C) any incentives necessary to attract or retain any civilian personnel possessing the skills and competencies identified under paragraph (1);
(D) any changes in the number of personnel authorized in any category of personnel listed in subsection (f)(1) or in the acquisition workforce that may be needed to address such gaps and effectively meet the needs of the Department;
(E) any changes in resources or in the rates or methods of pay for any category of personnel listed in subsection (f)(1) or in the acquisition workforce that may be needed to address inequities and ensure that the Department has full access to appropriately qualified personnel to address such gaps and meet the needs of the Department; and
(F) any legislative changes that may be necessary to achieve the goals referred to in subparagraph (A).
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in 2014 that DoD had not yet completed work on the requirement to determine “the appropriate mix of military, civilian, and contractor personnel capabilities” required by the law.  That’s understandable. The requirement is a very big bite for DoD. With 700,000 civilians, more than 2,000,000 active duty, Guard and Reserve personnel, and hundreds of thousands of contractors, determining the best mix is challenging to do at a macro, department-wide level.
What is difficult or impossible for 3 or 4 million jobs is much easier and is necessary for smaller numbers. Other departments do not have the huge numbers DoD is faced with analyzing, and certainly could do workforce plans that identify the critical skills and competencies they need to carry out their missions. Like any big task, this one is best done by starting with smaller segments of the organization and with a phased approach that begins with the requirements before trying to decide whether jobs should be done by federal workers, contractors, or a combination of both. 
Filling some jobs at the full performance level takes time. If they are in a critical field such as cybersecurity, there is tremendous competition among agencies and with the private sector. If an agency determines it needs to hire at the entry level and train people to do a job rather than hiring at the full-performance level, it needs to know its requirements at least a year or two in advance. That requires a plan. It needs to know what it is going to train those folks to do. That requires a plan. It needs to know what it would want a contractor to do if it decides to outsource all or part of the work. That requires a plan. It needs to know what the labor market looks like for the competencies it needs. And, yes – that requires a plan.

So the bottom line is that an agency may find itself in a mess if it fails to do good up-front planning for its talent requirements. We can blame the hiring process, or we can blame the contracting process, but even fixing both of those processes will not help if agencies do not know what kind of skills and competencies they need.

So – to answer the question I began with, half a workforce plan is better than none, but we should not forget that a civilian workforce plan is only a beginning. More is required and must be done to hire or acquire the talent agencies need to accomplish their missions.

Pleading the Fifth – Refuge of Scoundrels or Protection From Government Overreach?

I read a provocative article by Lisa Rein in yesterday’s Washington Post Federal Eye blog. Titled Pleading the Fifth: congressional ritual for senior feds in times of scandal, Lisa’s article reminds us how many times we see people standing before a congressional committee, raising their right hand, pledging to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and then citing the 5th amendment and refusing to answer questions. She asks a great question: “The practice raises the question of whether these are brazen bureaucrats who are thwarting the efforts of Congress to hold public servants accountable, or merely victims of partisan politics who are making use of civil service protections that allow them to insulate themselves from questions.”

The article quotes Chris Edward of the Cato Institute, saying “If you’re a shareholder of a company and your employee does something wrong, you can take action against them and there’s no pleading the Fifth. In government, you’ll see misbehavior at agencies like the VA, and Congress can’t get to the bottom of what happened because the officials won’t talk. It’s infuriating.” It also quotes Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) ranking Democrat on the House veterans panel, saying “At the end of the day, we simply must find answers and make sure the veterans come first.”

So – are these brazen bureaucrats who are thwarting the efforts of Congress? Or the victims of partisan politics who are using civil service protections? I think the answer is neither. Before I get into why that is true, let’s take a look at the amendment in question.

Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or other- wise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Civil servants who refuse to answer questions when called to testify before the House of Representatives or the Senate are not exercising civil service protections. They are exercising a Constitutional right guaranteed to everyone. In many respects a congressional hearing is a far worse place to be than a court of law. In court, defendants are entitled to representation. Their attorney can object to inappropriate questions that do not adhere to strict standards. They can cross examine witnesses. Congressional hearings are much different. We have all seen hearings where the intent is to score political points. The Cato Institute argument that companies can take action without their employees pleading the Fifth is absurd. A commercial entity is not the federal government. It does not have subpoena power. It cannot put you in jail. It cannot fine you. It doesn’t put you on television while it is questioning you. A more appropriate example is what happens when people who are not employees of the federal government are called to testify. Time and time again, we see people who believe they are targets asserting their Fifth amendment right by refusing to “be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” 

The Bill of Rights guarantees that individual rights trump political interests. Much like the First amendment guarantees of freedom of speech, religion, the press, assembly and ability to petition the government, and the Second amendment right to keep and bear arms, the Fifth amendment protects the people from government overreach and coercion. Federal employees have the same Constitutional rights as everyone else. In fact, unlike people who do not work for the government, federal workers and members of our armed forces have sworn an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic….”

We should not pick and choose the parts of the Constitution we like and try to ignore the rest. We should honor the service of our Veterans and ensure they receive the benefits we promised. Congress should exercise its Constitutional obligation to provide oversight to the Executive branch. They have the right to conduct investigations, subpoena documents and compel testimony, as long as it does not violate the Constitutional rights of federal workers or anyone else. Doing so undermines the integrity of the government and places everyone at risk.

Leading By Example

The White House has announced the selectees for the inaugural class of the White House Leadership Development (WHLD) program. This diverse group of leaders from around government clearly have great experience and the potential to move into more senior leadership roles in government or the private sector. When the White House announced the program, I heard a lot of grumbling that there was no way the program could get started as quickly as the Administration said it would. Kudos to everyone involved for not only getting a great program assembled, but also running a selection process that worked.

The WHLD is one of several initiatives intended to improve the training of leaders in government. The Department of Defense, in its “Force of the Future” proposal, is also planning a comprehensive approach to civilian talent management intended to “offer world class professional development opportunities to the civilian workforce.” Other agencies and departments are investing in leader development as well. Some of these programs are comprehensive, while others are “shake and bake” approaches that are unlikely to have any lasting benefit.

Why is leader development important? Because managers and supervisors can make or break an organization. The results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey clearly point to the need for more effective leaders. So do exit survey results in many agencies that show problems with leadership among the top reasons employees leave agencies. HR folks who run the hiring process complain that getting managers involved in the hiring process is a challenge and one of the contributors to hiring problems. Employees who are sick of dealing with coworkers who cannot or will not do their jobs will tell you that ineffective leaders are a big part of the problem. All of those are true. Even if we changed our hiring and promotion processes to look for leadership and management skills rather than technical expertise when we fill leadership jobs, we still have more than 260,000 supervisors in the federal government. Many of those people have never gotten effective training or development opportunities.

One of the biggest problems is in agencies that approach leader development with the “shake and bake” approach. They focus on checking the box so they can say they did leader development. That usually looks like a 3 – 5 day program where the get some sort of leadership style assessment, some training on basic HR rules, and maybe a session on dealing with conflict. Does anyone really believe that doing that transforms anything? That it gives those supervisors the skills they need to be effective? What it does is allow someone in the agency to say they offered training and then blame the supervisors for not being good enough. Failing to provide supervisors with the training they need to do their jobs is a leadership failure of immense proportions. We can say that supervisors should come into the job prepared to do it, but that overlooks the problem of selecting them based on technical skills rather than leadership abilities. We can say they should be able to pick it up along the way, but that overlooks what happens to the people they supervise while they are trying to absorb knowledge through some magical process of self-development.

The bottom line is that real leadership development takes time. It takes classroom training. It takes assignments that help build critical skills. It takes exposure to other organizations and ways of doing things. It takes an agency that is willing to make the investment of time and money needed to build strong supervisors. At the Defense Logistics Agency, we built a 2–year leadership program for new supervisors. It was so effective that supervisors who had not been through the program asked to be able to participate. Other agencies, such as NASA, have also invested in effective leadership development programs. The Office of Personnel Management offers a superb program called Leadership for a Democratic Society at the Federal Executive Institute. The common denominator in these programs is scope, breadth of experience, and investment of serious time.

The White House program recognizes the need to invest time and money in leaders. It is not large enough to meet all of the government’s leadership development needs, but it is a great start. It demonstrates, by example, the type of program that can actually make a difference. If every agency made that kind of investment, we could start to see the kind of real change the federal government needs. If they do not, then they should not expect to get real results.


Great HR Service? Don’t Make Me Laugh

I talk to a lot of people. One question I typically ask is “Are you happy with your HR service?” The reaction I most often get, whether I am talking with someone in government or the private sector, is a laugh. Sometimes it is a grin, sometimes laughing out loud, and sometimes a full-on belly laugh. “Yes” is a rare answer.

Human resources specialists have been identified by the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Defense, and many others in government as a “mission critical occupation” or MCO. Strategic human capital management is on GAO’s “High Risk” list. Virtually every manager I know identifies better hiring support as one of their most critical needs.

If HR is so important and HR Specialists are an MCO, why is it so rare to find someone who says they are happy with their HR support? Is there anything agencies can do to fix the problem?

The Problem(s). HR service delivery problems are typically caused by two distinct but intertwined problems. If an agency does not have a clear vision for its HR services and the agency fails to invest in HR, the agency is likely to get the default HR solution. For HR, particularly in government, the default is enforcing rules. A former colleague used to describe it by saying “Everyone has a Stop sign. I want to find the person in HR who has a Go sign.” The people who practice “just say no” usually defend their rules-based approach as protecting people from themselves, upholding the merit system, and “doing the right thing” as they define it. That HR-as-traffic cop mindset is a tremendous obstacle to good HR service. It is usually the product of the agency’s inadequate attention to and investment in HR services. When we see poorly resourced HR offices with poorly trained employees providing substandard services to the agency, no one is going to say they are happy with HR.

HR the Enforcer. Yes – the government has a lot of HR rules and regulations. But – HR is a service provider that is supposed to be helping people get things done. They help managers hire and fire people. They help employees with benefits such as retirement and insurance. They build and deliver HR training programs. Being viewed as the place that always says no is not providing service. The simple fact is that manager and employee customers are rarely asking HR to violate the law. More often than not, someone is asking HR to do something that is not the normal HR practice or that the HR office has not seen before. In some agencies those practices are treated as though Moses brought them down to HR on tablets.

By far, the greatest number of complaints about HR are connected to the hiring process. Hiring managers complain that they cannot get the talent they need, the process is unpredictable and unreliable, and the HR staff is unresponsive. Employees and applicants have similar complaints. The truth is that the federal hiring process is terrible and needs to be reformed. But – the broken hiring process is no excuse for poor customer service.

Even with a badly broken hiring process, good HR specialists deliver good customer service. They help managers navigate the hiring process to get the best outcome. They run hiring processes that are predictable, so the hiring manager knows how long it takes to get a vacancy announcement or a referral certificate. They respond quickly to questions. They understand the mission and the priorities.

Many of the complaints I hear most often are caused by poorly trained HR specialists who do not know what they are doing. Those are the folks who are most likely to hide behind regulations they do not understand or policies that do not require them to think. They do not respond to questions and do not know the answers when they do. They make promises and do not follow through. It’s no wonder their customers are unhappy.

If people are your most important resource, invest in people programs. We have all seen the collective eye rolling that happens when managers stand in front of employees and declare that people are their most important resource. Their people rhetoric and people programs are usually not aligned. We may think of people programs as being limited to things like training, rewards and recognition, and other programs that directly affect the workforce. More often than not the HR office itself is not viewed as a people program. Because of that, federal HR offices are generally under-resourced and under-trained. I have worked in agencies where HR became the dumping ground for the people no one else wanted. Agencies that had superb HR training programs cut them because training is always at the top of the list to be cut, and training for support folks like HR is at the top of the top of the list.

With that approach to resourcing HR, the outcome is predictable. You get a poorly trained and equipped HR office that defaults to the just say no approach. You get employee survey responses that are not good. You get “check the box” training. You get HR offices that struggle because they do not have enough resources, agencies do not see them as truly being mission critical, and they have limited access to the kind of training needed to develop customer-focused HR professionals who have the in-depth understanding of their organization, its needs, and the HR regulations themselves. The poor reputation of HR makes it harder to justify resources for HR offices. That makes them worse, which means they get fewer resources. And the cycle continues.

Is Good HR Service Out There? The Defense Logistics Agency is one of those organizations where people are generally satisfied with their HR support. They have actually turned away agencies that want them to provide HR services. Their customer feedback is excellent. When I was DLA HR Director, we got customer ratings that averaged 4.7 on a 5-point scale. We turned around vacancy announcements in days, not weeks. We issued referral certificates within a few days of announcements closing. So yes, good HR service is out there. Getting it meant the agency had to invest in HR. Fortunately for us, DLA is a well-run agency that knows something about customer service. It also knows there is no free lunch and if you want quality you pay for it. I’m sure there are other agencies that have good HR service. If you want to let me know about a great HR office, please do.

There are also great HR specialists out there who are delivering great results for their customers even when their office is not. We have all seen them. Customers love working with them. They find ways to get things done. They help customers navigate the maze of HR rules. They follow through. They know the jobs in the organization and understand the mission. When you find one you want more.

We Need More. Unlike professions like accounting and contracting, there are no real standard  for federal HR training and certification. Except for a few situations like conducting delegated examining, there are no requirements or minimum standards for practicing HR. That means we have a lot of amateurs practicing HR. They say no to customers because they do not know how to say yes. They don’t know the real rules. They do a lot of damage.

If HR is mission critical, and we want people to get great HR support, calling someone an HR professional is not enough. We have to start professionalizing HR. That means being more selective about who we hire, more deliberate about training, and setting standards for certification of HR professionals. It also means providing adequate resources for HR offices, and holding HR professionals accountable for providing great HR service. Being the holder of the stop sign who never finds a way to help an agency and its workforce meet their HR needs should be grounds for removal.

If the government is willing to invest in HR and hold HR Offices and individual HR specialists accountable, great HR service is doable. If not, we are going to get more of the same. And people will continue to laugh when asked if they are happy with their HR service. And that will be a shame.

Feds are Overpaid – Or Not: Part II

Last week’s post “Feds Are Overpaid – Or Not” generated a lot of questions, comments and complaints from people on all sides of the federal pay issue. Pay is one of those issues that causes people to get emotional, but because we are talking about the pay of people who work for The People, it is a fair subject to discuss. In fact, federal pay and bonuses are public information. If you go to a Fedsmith’s Feds Datacenter, you can even search by name for pay and bonus information for individuals.

Given all of the questions and comments, I decided to clarify a couple of points and address a few new ones.

Job Security. Last week I said “Feds have more job security and that has value, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to place a realistic dollar value on it.” Clearly for many employees job security is one of the most appealing aspects of a federal job. The problem with putting a value on it is that the value is subjective and varies greatly depending on who you ask. Some people would be willing to trade job security for a 5% pay raise, others would give up a significant part of their pay to have more job security. In a federal workforce of more than 2 million people with hundreds of occupations, assigning a particular value to job security is not very useful.

Job Classification. Last week I said “If the job description is bogus (and many are) so is the comparison.” That one was challenged by people who say the accuracy of individual job classifications is not important, while others said many federal jobs are under-graded. If the number of over-graded jobs was small, it would be of little importance. But my observation of the evolution of job grading over the past 37 years that I have been in or around government is that, for a variety of reasons, grade inflation is real, it is widespread, and it makes comparisons of General Schedule jobs to jobs in the private sector much less meaningful. The other problem with job classification is that we try to pay people in more than 400 job series using the the same General Schedule grades and pay. How do we expect to have meaningful pay discussions when everyone is lumped into an antiquated and limited system such as the General Schedule? The idea that many federal job are under-graded is one I heard from quite a few folks, but there is little evidence to back it up. In fact, when people appeal their job classification they rarely see the job upgraded.

Some people say the answer to the federal pay question is a new pay system for federal employees that bases pay on performance. I would support that 100% if I had any confidence that (a) it could be done without the gender, racial and ethnic bias we have seen in some pay-for-performance programs and (b) someone could devise a performance management process that actually works. Nothing I have seen so far gives me that confidence.

What might work is a system that is more responsive to the conditions in local labor markets for various occupations. A true market-based pay system that recognizes the wide variations among pay levels for different occupations and in different localities might actually work. Locales would have to be far smaller than today (for example, the DC locality includes jobs in rural WV and PA) and occupation-specific. Moving to market-based pay raises a lot of public policy questions that would have to be addressed. What happens when pay for an occupation goes up 25% in a year due to competition in the labor market? Would the government be willing to raise an employee’s pay that much? What happens when pay goes down? What happens when pay for the same occupation goes down in one location and up in another? How do we respond to the preceding question when we replace “location” with “congressional district?” Would the government follow the typical private sector practice and not cut the pay of existing employees (while bringing new employees in at a lower rate of pay)? Given that experience doing a job adds value (at least for a few years), does it include pay increases based on longevity? How do we deal with federal jobs that have no private sector equivalent?

It is certainly possible to design a pay system that works, is based on market realities, and is fair to employees. The problem is that politics and ideology are also part of the equation. That is why I am not optimistic that we will see real pay reform in government any time soon. The General Schedule is an antique, it is clearly not a good pay system, and it is so inflexible that it drives a lot of very bad behavior. That said, it is better than almost any option that could result from a reform effort that is driven by politics.


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