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.