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A Simpler Way to Manage People

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A few years ago I had an interview for a supervisory job at an agency that shall remain nameless.

“What would you do with a workforce that is largely unmotivated?” the interviewer asked me. “How would you get them going again?”

On that day I must have been unmotivated, too.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I can’t make miracles.”

Needless to say, I did not get the job. But I’ve heard that question, or a variation of it, in nearly every single senior-level interview I’ve been on.

In the beginning I thought the right answer was to have an answer. Now I know that the way to handle this one is to talk about an approach, a process. Preferably an integrated one that handles people in a consistent way, from beginning to end.

It is unfortunate that the federal government is not set up to manage its human resources very well right now. Even the most qualified people find gaining entry difficult. Leaders say the right things, but their actions disappoint. Middle managers are routinely stressed out, compressed as they are between the demands of supervising work and having to do it themselves.

Performance management is both a battlefield and a minefield, and it takes up so much time the incentive is more to minimize pain than to maximize productivity. And an overwhelming aversion to risk, change or newness tends to alienate the very people who can serve as a source of transformation.

I didn’t go into the government looking to be a human capital expert, but life here has taken me down that path, because that’s precisely what you do when you focus on internal communications, help supervisors document performance management issues, or become a supervisor yourself. All of these are experiences I’ve had in the government, and they have frequently been painful because the system itself is broken.

Branding people don’t often talk about this, but they do a fair amount of human capital work as well. People who don’t believe in the organization’s vision, mission, values or desired image are not going to do very much to support it. This means they’ll either fight with each other, create stovepipes, disengage, or leave the organization altogether -- frequently taking their top-flight talents with them.

So I’ve ended up immersed in this world of strategic human capital management. Reviewing Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results for articles about results and trends. Participating in the interagency Federal Communicators Network and events, which frequently lead to conversations about how we manage our people and how we could do it better.

On every occasion, joining others who asked a similar question: How can we make things better?

As a branding person and a human being with a lot on her plate, I long ago came to agree with simplicity experts Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn that reducing complexity is the answer. As the former co-chair of the Federal Communicators Network, Dave Hebert puts it, “In the perfect world, HR would be completely plugged in. You connect with people virtually, identify an opportunity for them to contribute, and make it happen, without a lot of paperwork.”

Simplicity, accessibility, relevant information delivered conveniently -- this is the plea I hear from colleagues governmentwide, again and again, especially when it comes to onboarding. Bridget Roddy and I have worked together several times to bring students into agencies through the State Department’s Virtual Student Foreign Service, a gateway to public service through which 16 federal agencies permit college students to work remotely.

Bridget believes that technology would go a long way toward providing an answer. “The civic graph concept can connect everyone who wants to be a part of public service, or is already there,” she says. “We ought to have a Facebook-like connective tissue for government.”

I met Lisa Nelson toward the end of last year, in her capacity as leader of the GSA’s Open Opportunities program. She helped me figure out how to use the program, a rapidly growing professional development initiative that allows federal employees to “moonlight” at other agencies, gaining skills and establishing a broad network of peers they can turn to when they have questions or immediate problems to solve. Open Opportunities develops and connects the federal workforce deploying skills and expertise across the government when and where they are needed.

A longtime government employee, Lisa believes that success lies in finding talent buried in agency silos.  And so while she thinks an integrated approach to managing human capital is a noble goal, she believes we must build a network of innovators, passionate, mission-driven individuals who can make a bigger impact if they are connected to other like-minded federal workers. To that end, “we must promote a cooperative approach to problem-solving,” says Lisa. “This will help agencies and employees gain skills, talent and interagency experience.”

The Partnership for Public Service recently held its annual awards ceremony, where Bridget was a finalist for the Call to Service medal. “Cross-agency collaboration is everything,” she told me. “It was all they talked about all night.” Which is all well and good, I wondered, but who would be in charge if we created an all-encompassing, interagency "HR Central?" Even beyond the “Collaboration Central" envisioned by GSA?

None of my colleagues had the answer for this. Start a new post inside the White House? Restructure the Office of Personnel Management? Form a working group with a representative inside every federal agency?

Having raised two millennials, one thing is for certain: Tomorrow’s federal employees won’t have the patience for us to figure this out.

Copyright 2015 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. The opinions expressed are her own, and the content of this post is not intended to represent any federal agency or the government as a whole.

(Image via Ivelin Radkov/Shutterstock.com)

Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a federal communicator with 20 years' experience in the private sector, academia and government. Best known for her work on branding, Dr. Blumenthal now focuses on the discipline of management, particularly the intersections between identity, culture and communication. She has lectured at a variety of schools including The George Washington University and the University of Maryland University College. In her spare time she is an independent community activist, focused primarily on raising awareness about child sexual abuse and domestic violence. All opinions are her own.

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