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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Civil Service Reform Must Be a Priority

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Office of Personnel Management Director Jeff Pon recently promised sweeping changes in government’s HR practices. That initiative can’t start soon enough. But it would be a serious mistake to limit the changes to the policies and practices “owned” by the Office of Personnel Management. If the title wasn’t already taken, a book or movie about working in the federal government could, without irony, be called The Land That Time Forgot.

Pon has an enormous task ahead. The philosophy inherent in the civil service system reflects the worst of bureaucratic government. Here is just one fact that highlights the problem: The classification standard for jobs in the GS-2210 Information Technology Management Series was last revised in 2011. It is 205 pages long, and the word cybersecurity appears only once, on page 183.

A new book, Talent Wins, sets forth a philosophy that would serve government well for decades. It was written for corporate chief executives but the message is directly relevant to government leaders at all levels. It begins with the statement, “Most executives today recognize the competitive advantage of talent, yet the talent practices their organizations use are vestiges of another era.” With the civil service system, it’s not just another era, it’s from another century.

For reasons that are not at all evident, government’s usual approach to addressing problems is contrary to the argument in the book. The authors operate in the rarefied world of CEOs and corporate boards. Their contention is that human capital needs to be managed “as wisely as financial capital.” The first three pages of the book list endorsements of this view from prominent corporate leaders. To quote two: Johnson & Johnson’s CEO Alex Gorsky writes, “Talent is the difference between a good company and a great company.” Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg contends, “In a competitive global economy, no business can afford to leave talent management on the sidelines.”

Cybersecurity is clearly one of government’s most pressing problems. Superficially it’s a technology problem, but a statement from a member of the Commission on Cybersecurity, Dr. Eric Cole, makes it clear it’s not that simple: “Cybersecurity is a business and people problem, not a technology problem.” His point is that talent and talent management should be the focus of government’s strategy. The critical point is that government needs to be competitive to attract the best cybersecurity specialists.

That would apply to every high-demand occupation. Talent is the answer to the problems government needs to address. Contractors may be able to handle the support work but agencies need fully qualified people to initiate change and commit government resources.  

OPM’s Pon is correct in stating that piecemeal reform is not the answer. Human Resources policies are only a piece of the puzzle. Government may never be high on lists of the best places to work, but it should be on the list.

An obvious first step is to define goals and determine where change is needed to achieve the goals. That of course assumes it’s possible to agree on the goals.

One goal that is possibly less controversial is making government careers once again attractive. The oldest workers will recall the time when government was able to “attract the best and the brightest.” Today, that’s no longer true. A survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers shows that only 12 percent of graduates are interested in government careers. That includes students majoring in education and the several public policy fields. The solution will require understanding what makes federal jobs unattractive, field by field, and making necessary changes.

A related goal is retaining those employees who demonstrate the ability to be valued contributors. It’s not only younger workers but it’s also experienced workers. Losing an employee, especially those who are best qualified, triggers a heavy and often unrecognized cost.

Retirement is inevitable for everyone but it would alleviate the problem if the best qualified workers chose to stay beyond the date when they are eligible to retire. The reasons for resigning or retiring are many but the work experience and the effectiveness of supervision are frequently cited. Here, Pon should have the current hot button, HR analytics, on his to-do list to understand how to retain the best performers.  

Finding the Best Managers

That focuses on a recognized government problem—the selection, training and rewards associated with building a cadre of effective managers and supervisors. Talent Wins is relevant here as well. Facebook’s chief human resources officer, Lori Goler, argues, “The best managers wanted to be managers. The worst had moved into these roles because they believed that was the path to greater tangible rewards. Organizations wedded to traditional corporate hierarchy promote their most skilled people into managerial slots as matter of course. It’s a terrible mistake that saps the passion of your company’s key employees.”

Government exacerbates the problem by not providing adequate training to develop effective supervisory skills, fails to provide the feedback and coaching needed to improve, and also fails to reward those who are effective. Work teams are also too often organized so that managers end up focusing far too much of their time on the technical work they find satisfying. That has to change.

The biggest, most difficult and most important change will be rethinking the classification and General Schedule salary systems. Scrapping would be preferable. The classification system is an anachronism— the “classifiers” have all retired, an unknown number of jobs are over-graded, and as with cybersecurity, occupational change is occurring too quickly to keep the standards current. No leader is likely commit to “correcting” the problems.

The GS system is worse. Government has not assembled reliable survey data showing how well federal jobs are paid since Bill Clinton was President. Pay is supposedly not important to government workers but in an era when websites like Glassdoor make it easy for employees to assess their salary, it’s doubtful that anyone (except executives and managers) truly believes they are underpaid by 35 percent. It will be essential for OPM to generate data at least as credible as Glassdoor. Pay level may not be important but perceived fairness is.

Plus the automatic step increases have contributed to a culture of entitlement that combined with the shared distrust will trigger resistance to any proposed change in the GS system.

If a goal is to raise performance levels (not simply reduce costs), it will prove to be impossible if the GS system is not replaced. States have confirmed pay for performance is viable in government. Here, OPM needs to recognize that new approaches to managing performance are badly needed. Even more important, however, is developing effective managers.

For this to happen, agencies will need to invest in elevating and upgrading the role of HR. One chapter in the book is “Make HR a Source of Competitive Advantage.” In government that is a novel idea. However, among the 40,000+ personnel specialists across government, there must be more than a few who are frustrated and would look forward to tackling the challenges.

This only skims what’s needed. To finish, the book provides compelling advice for leaders:  

“Simply put, reimagining and leading a people-first company [or agency] cannot be delegated to anyone else in the organization. In the past, some ‘people initiatives’ were viewed as ‘soft’ or ‘feel-good’ efforts that didn’t merit the CEO’s full attention. That won’t suffice. What’s needed now is something altogether different, and far more demanding. In our opinion, putting talent first means a complete transformation of the way most companies have done business for decades.”  

Reform promises to be far more difficult in government. But for government to solve the complex problems and threats ahead, agencies need the talents and commitment of well qualified individuals.

Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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