Federal HR reforms demand an inside/out strategy

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

Jason Miller | April 17, 2015 6:55 pm

Federal chief human capital officers no longer say working within the current federal HR system is the answer to improving the hiring, firing and other processes.

Instead, CHCOs say it’s time to make wholesale changes to the increasingly complex human resources processes.

This belief comes from the recent Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton survey where 62 CHCOs and other federal HR leaders say Congress needs to “revamp the federal government’s pay and job classification system. These antiquated and ineffective systems hinder the government’s ability to attract, retain and deploy employees as effectively and efficiently as possible.”

Michael Kerr, the assistant secretary for administration and management at the Labor Department, said the systemic problems with federal HR processes are a central theme throughout the report.

“It said the personnel system needs to change. If you read the report throughout it, people are quoted as saying that. And then there are recommendations and thoughts that this needs to be addressed and changed,” he said during a panel discussion Wednesday in Washington sponsored by the Partnership and Grant Thornton. “That’s actually a big difference in my experience talking to HR directors, and I read the report twice to see if I found this other argument. I’ve confronted the argument over and over again. That ‘You know if people only learned what the rules were, they could do the recruiting they wanted to do, they could do hiring they wanted to do and they could figure out how to fire people.’ That phrase, that argument doesn’t appear in this report at all. I think it’s really important that the human resources community is getting away from, ‘this thing works for everybody if they’d only figure out the rules the way I know them.’ I was delighted that argument didn’t appear in this report and throughout this report they said the system needed to change.”

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Merit principles violations?

Experts say the changes have to happen across the board because it’s not just one part that doesn’t work.

But there are areas that need attention more quickly. For example, the CHCOs say despite efforts by the Office of Personnel Management, agencies continue to struggle with the hiring process. In the report, CHCOs say they face higher than average turnover, rising workloads and tight budgets, and can’t always make sure that the people agencies hire are exceptionally well matched to jobs.

Kerr said the problems with the hiring system are only getting worse.

“We have a system that almost violates the first merit principle: that we have open competition for everybody for all jobs. I think we are getting very close to a closed system,” he said. “Most of our hiring is people who are already in the federal workforce. USAJobs is very difficult to navigate if you are an outsider. We have a language in the HR world that only people in the federal service understand and can work their way through. I have no assurance that when I go out and recruit that people who I ask to apply for jobs will actually get through the process of USAJobs without giving up. I really appreciated the line in this report that the system we have now is a disincentive to recruit. It is very hard for me to recruit people from outside government from the work that gets placed.”

Now not everyone on the panel was so pessimistic.

Brad Bunn, the director of human resources for the Defense Logistics Agency, said the workforce has its share of challenges, but it understands what it faces and is meeting its mission.

Patricia Adams, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for civilian human resources, said she too is optimistic because of the technology and data analytics that is helping improve the federal HR system.

But the panelists also agreed that updating policy, regulations and laws is a must do.

Bunn said the fix has to start by simplifying the processes. He said there are four rules for federal HR, but 40,000 exceptions.

Adams added that on top of that there are 500 hiring authorities.

Bunn and Adams both agreed that no one knows all the rules and regulations that govern federal HR processes.

“We don’t have one personnel system in the Department of Defense or in the federal government. We have a patchwork of lots of different systems that are part of the 40,000 exceptions that I talked about,” Bunn said. “We have demonstration projects that have been demonstrated for 30 years now. We have pilots that probably either should have gone away or been adopted as the system years and years ago. Even in the classification and pay system we have a patchwork of different rules.”

Short term improvements are possible

Panelists also say Congress and the administration have little appetite for broad scale civil service reforms.

“If there were a serious and adult conversation about what we could do and it was realistic and was presented to Congress, I think it is possible,” Bunn said. “It can’t be a management fad that won’t last. It’s got to be real reform. It’s got to preserve some bedrock things that we treasure in the civil service that are really embodied in the merit principles. There are ways to do that to really make improvements.”

Adams said one of the biggest challenges is the over regulation of the HR function. She said too often agencies receive advice from lawyers, HR specialists, OPM and others on how to interpret the regulations and policy, but it’s really about making good decisions, and not getting the agency in trouble.

Adams said deregulation of federal HR would make processes more agile while still adhering to the principles of the merit system.

In the short term, several panelists say HR managers need to be more innovative.

The Labor Department’s Kerr said his definition of a good HR director is someone who knows the rules cold and knows if they don’t work. He said also he wants an HR person who is aggressive in how they take advantage of what the rules do allow.

“You have to make decisions about what you are doing to risk, and the HR system is not used to talking about risk so they have to say, ‘OK where are we going to come up close to the line? Where are we going to try and figure out how to do this in a way that the regulation that was written 40 years ago [will allow]?'” Kerr said. “What they worry about too much is: Is somebody going to slap them on the wrist?”

He added giving employees the assurance that risk taking is fine and is an important part of this process.

“If you let us know, we will not hold it against you,” Kerr said. “Have a conversation with us. If we have a conversation, it’s on my neck.”

Ned Holland, the assistant secretary for administration for the department of Health and Human Services, said there’s an awful lot of what agencies do each day that are embedded in practice, but not law, statute or regulations.

Holland said HHS is promoting innovation across the agency through an innovation committee he and agency chief technology officer Brian Sivak lead.

“I recognize a low-level employee worries about his or her job. It’s necessary that leaders say, ‘look, take the risk and I’ll see to it that I’ll take the responsibility,'” he said. “My view of my job is to take the responsibility. I try to give credit to all kinds of people and take the responsibility myself.”

Out of the HR shared service business

He said challenging the embedded practices is part of the way to create culture of innovation.

“Beyond that, the HR shop won one of our innovation awards. They put together a program called ‘Ready, Cert, Hire.’ That gets all the jargon, but what it’s up to is creating a quick certification process so people could do the hiring fast,” Holland said. “We also have hiring pilot going on we are working with OPM. Each of those is an area where we think we could make progress, and we are encouraging people to make an effort [and] take a risk. A psychologist at Boston College, where I went to school, used to say make a decision, take a risk and pay the price — the prices aren’t that high.”

Holland said the hiring pilot is about bringing new workers on board more quickly by getting the hiring manager involved in the process early on. He said HHS also is trying to pre-qualify people earlier in the process.

In addition to internal changes, Holland said HHS has decided to stop offering HR shared services, and will begin moving its HR systems to the Agriculture’s National Finance Center this summer.

He said it’s all about helping to create a governmentwide human resources system so agencies can take advantage of data analytics to better understand all phases of HR.

Holland said the move to NFC is happening in three phases with the first part going live this August and completed by next spring.

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