Federal HR is Mission Critical. Is It Mission Capable?

HR Word CloudIn a word, no. After spending over 30 years in federal HR, I hate to admit that the HR apparatus I was a part of (and still engage with) is generally broken. But – facts are facts. From the making of laws to the writing of regulations and on down to the structures and processes of operating offices around the government, federal HR is struggling and often failing.

Why do I say that? We have a broken hiring system. Training is not a priority. Customers complain that they cannot get good service, except from a handful of HR superstars, in many agencies. Job applicants are treated more like product than people. Despite the efforts of a lot of good HR folks, from almost every perspective the HR function is broken.

The problems are not the fault of the majority of HR practitioners. Most agencies have a lot of dedicated HR folks. They work hard and do their best with the rules and tools they have to work with, doing the work the way they were taught to do it. The problem is that the rules and tools are inadequate and the way most people are taught to do the work was OK in the last millennium, but not in this one.

This post is the first of a series that looks at what is wrong with HR and some ideas on how to fix it. I am not talking about tweaking it around the edges. The entire federal HR process and structure, from top to bottom, from OPM to HR offices to federal managers, needs to be completely reimagined. We can take the usual approach and train a few folks, throw in some category ranking, add a special hiring authority here and there, and tell people to work smarter, harder and faster. What will be the result? More of the same. We have been taking this incremental approach for so long that some folks have lost sight of the fact that HR is an absolutely mission critical job. Without good HR, agencies cannot hire the talent they need, train them, or take care of them.

Last week I wrote about comprehensive civil service reform and the need for it to be high on the next president’s to-do list. So let’s say President Trump or Clinton or Sanders or Cruz or Kasich decides to take it on and push for civil service reform. And let’s say Congress agrees and passes something to modernize the civil service. What happens next? We give it to OPM, department and agency HR folks, and operating HR offices and hiring managers to implement. And then it comes apart. OPM will be exceedingly cautious in how it implements reform, and the agency and operating HR folks will try to fit it into the way they have always done business. A lot of the managers will assume it is the responsibility of the HR folks. Without a complete rethinking of the HR apparatus that runs federal HR programs, reform is less likely to succeed.

Let’s start with looking at the role of HR folks. If you go to a typical agency and ask HR folks what they think their role should be, you will get different answers from everyone. Some will tell you that HR is there to serve the employees. Others will say they serve the managers. Still others will say they are there to serve the mission of the agency. Others will say they are there to protect the merit system (sometimes acting like the merit system police). Some will say their role is strategic and that why should be offering people strategies for the agency. Others will say they are there to process paper and make the trains run on schedule. In some respects all of those perspectives are accurate. HR has all of those responsibilities. It is also far more than that.

Those responsibilities are executed by HR specialists whose jobs are, to a large extent, much like they were 10 years ago. Or 50 years ago. The typical HR office has some combination of generalists and specialists, and some combination of Staffing, Classification, Employee and Labor Relations, and Training. much of that work is done the same way it has been done for the last 50 years. The technology is different, but the basics of the jobs have been surprisingly static. Is it any surprise that organizations built from the same old collection of building blocks always look like some variation of the same building? We have changed some laws, regulations and technology. But we have not taken a step back and tried to do a design HR offices and their component parts from scratch. It is time to do that. We have to lay out what the responsibilities of HR staff and the  managers and employees should be, and then design jobs and organizations that can carry out those responsibilities. In a later post I will lay out some ideas on how to do that. Those ideas will not be just a rearranging of the current roles and jobs or a rehashing of the virtues of specialists versus generalists or vice versa. They will also include some jobs that do not exist in typical HR offices today.

I will also lay out some ideas on how to restructure the regulation and policy making organizations, including OPM and OMB. Any fix has to include the regulations that are the framework upon which federal HR is built. Without addressing the foundation, we cannot address the structure we build on top of it.

Any rethinking of HR also has to look at the customer experience. What is it like to be a customer of the federal HR apparatus? What do those customers need? How do they get information? How do they transact business? Do they need different ways of interacting with HR based on what they need done? Do different groups of customers have different needs? How does HR measure customer satisfaction? How does HR interact with applicants? How do those applicants conduct business with HR and hiring managers. That customer perspective is often lacking in HR.

We also have to address the responsibilities of federal managers and employees. HR is not solely the responsibility of HR folks. They obviously have a big role to play, but so do managers and employees. I plan to lay out some ideas on what those roles are and should be, along with what they need to be able to carry out their responsibilities.

If we seriously want good people programs in government, we have to think about them in a rational way. We cannot simply rearrange the parts and pieces and expect to get radically different results. Everyone involved, including the current HR staff and their customers, deserves better.

Civil Service Reform Should Be High on the Next President’s To-Do List

img_0177-1Civil Service reform is badly needed, but for a long time I believed the political situation in Washington makes it too risky to attempt. The polarization that infects our political system also infects views of the civil service. To hear some people tell it, civil servants are either saints who can do no wrong or they are leeches sucking the blood out of America. Federal workers are either underpaid or they are paid 50, 60 or 70% more than their counterparts in the private sector.

That kind of disagreement over what ought to be factual makes talking about civil service reform risky. Remember what happened when politicians decided they would come up with a way to force themselves to do their jobs and pass a budget? They created sequestration. It was supposed to be an outcome that was so horrible that neither party would allow it to happen. After all, who would think that just mindlessly cutting the budgets of virtually every agency in government would work? How would defense hawks allow DoD to get whacked? How would proponents of social programs allow them to get whacked? But – whacked they were. Even with a gun of their own creation aimed squarely at their heads, we did not get a budget passed this year. Or last.

So why on earth would I think that we should start looking at civil service reform in that environment? Why not just ask OPM to find every flexibility it can within the current laws and make do with that until we get to a more normal political process?

Because that it is not happening. We have seen some tweaking of rules and processes, but OPM has not done a comprehensive look at their own regulations to try to find every possible way to make the civil service better within today’s laws. There is a lot of room within existing laws to make things better. For example, we do not need 400+ job series. Having that many makes keeping classification standards up to date more difficult and makes it much harder for job seekers from outside government. OPM has the authority to reduce the number to something manageable (I’d suggest no more than 100). There are many other examples of simplification and streamlining that can be done without congressional action. The benefits could be significant and achieved quickly

Even if OPM did that, some of the biggest problems the government faces with its people programs are not fixable by regulation or process changes. They need a new legal underpinning to make big changes happen. With every passing day, the federal government moves closer to a talent crisis. The government workforce is aging and turning over at increasing rates, and high quality replacements are not coming fast enough. The time to fill jobs is on most leaders’ lists of problems that need to be fixed. So is the quality of applicants, the abysmal process for advertising jobs, the poor job most agencies do at screening applicants, the cumbersome and hard to understand job classification system, and last, but certainly not least, a pay system that offers few tools when competing for in-demand talent.

There are real costs to not having the right talent in place. For example, in January 2015, the Government Accountability Office said “…a decline in telecommunication expertise across multiple agencies compounded the General Services Administration’s (GSA) challenges in transitioning those agencies to a new network of telecommunications services, contributing to delays and cost overruns of 44 percent.” Not having the right people can interfere with vital operations of government. Whether you are a proponent of more or less government, it is safe to say most people would prefer that the Department of Defense be able to do its job. Defense is finding more and more problems with recruiting and retaining talent for civilian jobs. Those jobs are an essential part of our war fighting capability. Without them, ships, boats, aircraft and tanks do not get rebuilt. Our troops do not get the spare parts they need, nor do they get the food, fuel, medical supplies, uniforms, or anything else they need.

It is not limited to those examples. Do we want the Social Security Administration to be able to pay benefits? Do we want NASA to explore space? Do we want the Department of Energy to ensure the integrity and safety of our nuclear weapons, advance nuclear nonproliferation and promote international nuclear safety? Do we want the Weather Service to give us weather information? There are hundreds of other programs that are vital to our national security, the free flow of commerce, and the general operation of our society. Without the right talent they do not work.

So – I believe civil service reform has moved from “nice to have” to a national imperative. We can argue about what that reform should look like, but it is getting harder and harder to argue that it does not have to happen. The next president should make civil service reform a priority and begin the process (in cooperation with the House and the Senate, unions, and other appropriate parties) of crafting a set of civil service reforms that build a 21st century civil service.

While that is happening (it may take a couple of years) the new president should order a comprehensive interagency review of existing OPM regulations to identify every reasonable way of enacting reform through executive action. In order to ensure that legal questions are resolved quickly and with an expansive view of what is possible, the Department of Justice should provide legal advice to the reviewers. The objective should be identifying the most needed and impactful regulatory changes and drafting interim regulations within 120 days of the inauguration.

If we do not address the weaknesses of the current civil service system, the kind of problems we have today are only the beginning. Agencies will struggle to recruit, develop and retain talent, costs will be higher than they need to be, and vital programs that our nation depends upon will be put at risk every day. Those risks are real, growing and pose a significant danger – so much so that, despite the political mess, we have to act.