Anita Blair, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for total force transformation, said in an interview with Government Executive that the federal government must adapt to a changing workforce to recruit and retain the talent it needs. This goal is reflected in the service's 2007 Human Capital Strategy, she said.
Blair noted that much of the department's budget is allocated to personnel. "We're treating people as a valuable asset that we invest in," she said.
The strategy builds off a series of 2004 reforms and identifies four changes that affect the government's ability to recruit and retain employees: longer life expectancy, more people attaining higher education, greater diversity in the population, and greater flexibility in workplace and work patterns.
The Office of Personnel Management has indicated that the federal government faces a potential "retirement tsunami" over the next decade, as about 60 percent of federal workers overall and 90 percent of senior executives become eligible for retirement.
But Blair said those behind the Navy's new strategy view the potential retirement wave as an opportunity rather than a threat. "We don't talk about retirement as an end," she said. "We talk about it as a transition. Someone who retires may well transition to be a contractor or a volunteer."
Blair pointed to an instance when the Army force in Iraq lacked military police and called on the Navy and Air Force for assistance. While neither the Navy nor Air Force could fill the exact need, they were able to train employees to meet the Army's requirements in a very short time, Blair said.
"The gap between the military and civilian and the Army and the Navy can be measured and addressed," Blair said, "and the gap between the people retiring and the people coming in can be measured and addressed."
Blair also said that when agency budgets are trimmed, training is often the first program to be cut. "The government has to get over the idea that when it invests in an asset, somehow it's only the asset that gets better and not the organization overall," she said.
Another major challenge is the government's reliance on personnel systems that have essentially remained unchanged for half a century, according to Blair. In March, 7,500 civilian employees from the Navy came under the Pentagon's new personnel plan known as the National Security Personnel System.
Defense Department employees, federal labor unions and many lawmakers have criticized NSPS, largely because the Pentagon has argued that the 2004 law that authorized the system effectively allows the department to eliminate collective bargaining rights. An appeals court earlier this month ruled that the Pentagon has the authority to limit collective bargaining, until November 2009.
Blair said while the department's new human capital strategy relies on NSPS, Navy Secretary Donald Winters has signaled that he wants to ensure the system is positive and valuable to employees. This process involves evaluating employees' feedback.
Still, Blair indicated that she hopes Defense will move forward with the system. "It applies to people who have grown up in the government, and the government is very command and control," she said. "NSPS is not intended to be command and control, and change is hard."
Blair said the new strategy also focuses on reforming and speeding the hiring process by essentially pre-qualifying applicants. She said staffers attend several conventions throughout the year that allow them to assess potential employees' interests, and whether their skills and experience match those required for a particular position.
"We try to be the guide for Navy," she said. "The government, I think, is a little mysterious to people outside, and that really complicates the recruiting process."
The Navy also is looking into why certain job candidates don't end up getting hired. "We track the results to learn what it is we're doing or not doing to ensure we are more competitive with other companies and organizations," Blair said.
The government has long needed to reform its personnel strategies, Blair said, adding she hopes the Navy will be a leader for implementing a plan that is focused on building up its greatest asset -- its people.
"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago," Blair said. "The second best time to plant a tree is now. We are planting seeds now that may be a tree in 20 years."