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.