OPM details strategy for workforce reshaping, basic tenets of Trump’s management agenda

Agency human capital managers are getting a new blueprint for implementing the administration’s two top workforce initiatives.

The Office of Personnel Management’s Quadrennial Federal Workforce Priorities Report, the first of its kind, details the steps agencies should consider when reshaping the government workforce and improving employee engagement.

The report, which OPM released Wednesday after two years of research in the federal space and private sector, describes six specific priorities to achieve those goals, and it details OPM’s vision for the workforce of the future.

The six priorities are:

  1. Succession planning and knowledge transfer.
  2. Deploying communication tools.
  3. Securing IT solutions for human capital analysis.
  4. Expanding employee development opportunities.
  5. Improving employee recognition programs.
  6. Enhancing productivity by focusing on employee health.

OPM has asked agency chief financial officers to choose two priorities to focus and act on until it releases the next quadrennial workforce report in 2021.

A forward-thinking outlook on the federal workforce is much-needed, said Dan Blair, former deputy OPM director and now senior counselor for the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“We’re living under 1949 classification act,” he said. “We’re living under a Civil Service Reform Act that is reaching its 40th anniversary. And while both were good pieces of legislation at that time, nothing stands still. The reforms that were initiated in the Bush era did not prove lasting.”

The current state of the federal workforce that OPM describes isn’t necessarily bleak, but it’s certainly missing some key skills sets and has some gaping holes.

About 83 percent of agencies told OPM that staffing shortages hampered their agency’s ability to meet the mission, and human capital challenges only inflate those issues.

Generally, agencies are under-staffed and unprepared to fill current vacancies and develop clear plans to fulfill their staffing needs, or recruit and retain top talent, OPM said.

Agencies broadly have also struggled to attract and hire a younger generation of federal workers, who seek more ongoing feedback from their supervisors, better work/life balance and more work flexibilities, OPM said.

Blair said the quadrennial report begins to address how agencies can respond to constantly evolving generational changes.

“We need to also have systems in place that realize that these workers do not want to come into a job for a lifetime,” he added.

Indeed, OPM recognized a need to provide more flexibilities, such as encouraging federal employees to use work breaks for exercise and promoting better work/life balance.

“Employees should be shielded from ‘flexibility stigma,’ which is when pushing for workplace flexibilities leads to being labeled as less than fully committed to the job,” the agency said. “Employers can help minimize flexibility stigma by giving employees more options on when and where they work, when feasible, and establishing proactive manager-initiated processes rather than employee-initiated ones.”

OPM is also encouraging agencies to consider how automation may partially replace some work or entire job functions in the future.

Though OPM doesn’t predict that automation will completely take over all work activities all at once, agencies should start thinking about how they adapt to a new world. Developing soft skills in the federal workforce has and will continue to become more important, it added.

“In the federal landscape, this will require coordinated efforts that allow for and fund technological experimentation and pilots, the fluid and comprehensive collection of skill requirements associated with programs and activities and strategic foresight activities,” OPM wrote.

The report doesn’t outline a specific plan but details a governmentwide human capital strategy with deep ties to the Trump administration’s government reorganization guidance. The President’s Management Agenda and Cross-Agency Priority goals, which are expected with the release of the White House fiscal 2019 budget proposal Monday, will set a more specific path forward, OPM said.

Under the President’s Management Agenda, the Trump administration expects that by 2021, agencies will:

  1. Manage programs and deliver services more effectively.
  2. Devote a higher proportion of federal dollars to mission-specific, rather than compliance activities.
  3. Support program outcomes more efficiently and effectively.
  4. Be held accountable for improving performance.

More details of the president’s management agenda and specific cross-agency priority goals should be out Monday.

OPM’s report is the result of more than two years research on current workforce challenges and trends, plus a look at past Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results, recommendations from the Government Accountability Office and suggestions from agency inspectors general.

“This is the kind of role that OPM should be taking, in advising agencies and departments on how to prepare themselves for the future,” Blair said.

OPM will have its own challenge over the next three years: helping agencies explore and implement these priorities. Blair said such an effort requires strong permanent leadership, something that OPM currently lacks.

“It’s going to take some creative thinking on the part of OPM,” he said. “The challenge for the organization is to, rather than say ‘no’ to creative ideas, it needs to find a way to say ‘yes’ to what the departments and agencies want.”

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is scheduled next Wednesday to consider Jeff Pon’s nomination, the Trump administration’s pick to be OPM director.

Pon’s nomination has been pending since October.