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Government Needs to Redefine the HR Function

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Something has been missing from recent columns and news stories about what federal workers can expect from the Trump administration regarding its plans for agencies. There are no reference or statements attributed to human resource offices. That’s true of the discussions of civil service reform as well. When workforce issues are mentioned, the role of HR rarely comes up.

The 2018 budget request the White House sent to Congress last month, which outlines the administration’s ambitious plan to restructure government, barely mentions HR. The only reference is in the chapter “Strengthening the Federal Workforce,” which refers to problems attributable to the “more than 3,400 Federal personnel regulatory provisions.” It’s clear the Trump administration understands there are limitations on HR’s role in government.

The regulations influence employee careers from beginning to end as well as the role of supervisors. Many have seen virtually no change in decades. The General Schedule system stands out—it’s origin is a 1923 law. HR offices were created to administer (read enforce) the regulations and process the associated paperwork.  

In contrast, private employers operate under federal and state employment laws that were also written to protect employee rights and prevent bias and abuse, but the laws have not kept companies from introducing new—and radically different—work management practices

Corporate HR executives are the thought leaders in that revolution. A recently posted job opening for a “VP of People” in an unnamed Washington employer illustrates the new HR role along with the new people management philosophy:

[Company] is looking for an experienced and forward-looking VP of People to catapult [company] into its next stage of growth. Employees are at the core of everything we accomplish -- there is no [company] without the massive contributions of every employee past and present.  [Employees] represent both the largest asset and largest expense on the literal and metaphorical balance sheet, and we need to ensure that we continue to hire and engage the best talent in order to satisfy our vision of unlocking the potential of data to solve the world's largest information problems.

The job’s “You will” list of responsibilities includes:

  • Ensure processes and procedures are up-to-date, relevant, and compliant, and also accelerate decision making and performance;
  • Strategically plan and evaluate organizational design for today and future growth;
  • Ensure employees are engaged by identifying ways to solicit frequent and measurable feedback, as well as providing outlets for internal employee interaction.

This company is not unique. The clear assumption is that HR can and will play a vital, proactive role in the company’s management and presumably its success. That’s a common theme in business publications.

Central to top management’s thinking in this company and others is the belief that employees have far more to contribute than what has been expected or possible in the traditional, control-oriented work environment. It would be the rare company today that has not changed its approach to people management over the past decade.  

Federal HR offices did not create this situation; it’s the legislation, the history of distrust, and now the political divide that makes it difficult to agree on needed changes. HR offices were created to support a badly outdated work environment. But the barriers to redefining HR’s role depend on abrogating civil service laws. The innovative changes of the past have become barriers to effective people management.

The problems confronting government are becoming increasingly complex—far more complex than in the typical company and certainly more consequential. Agencies are losing senior, proven talent to retirement at a time when Millennial interest in government service is declining. In the absence of change, the situation will only deteriorate.

Realistically this is a Catch 22 problem. HR’s offices were not staffed or enabled to play a prominent role in what promises to be a contentious restructuring. HR specialists have rarely had opportunities to develop change management expertise. At the same time, the restructuring will demand that expertise, along with a facility with leading edge HR practices and the acceptance by executives and managers of HR in this new role. That promises to be essential for government to digest the changes. Leadership will be essential.

A recent column posted on Harvard Business Review highlighted a key point. The column, “Why More Executives Should Consider Becoming a CHRO,” argues that a good chief human capital officer can have more impact on a company than any other C-suite executive reporting to the CEO. The authors discuss several reasons why “outsiders,” as opposed to those with a traditional HR background, are more likely to have that impact. Here are two that differentiate the “New HR” from the traditional role.

  • “Their focus is on business results, not only people outcomes.” Rather than focusing on planning and administering HR practices, the focus should be on how to use the knowledge of HR to raise employee performance levels.
  • “Their role in pushing fellow leaders, not just supporting them or serving them.” The point is that the value that HR offers is the understanding of how to get the best out of people, and the strategies to make that happen. They also need the advisory skills to convince agency leaders to change their approach to day to day supervision.

The thread that runs through the Harvard Business Review column is the value HR can add with the new understanding and proven practices that enable and encourage employees to more fully use their capabilities. It would require legislative change but the changes would make government a more attractive career choice for Millennials. Reform would contribute to improved organization performance and make the work experience that much more satisfying for employees.

The President’s restructuring plans promise to introduce more extensive change than agencies have experienced in decades. The restructuring will no doubt trigger tension and worse but it also represents opportunities for innovation in the management of work. The 1990 recession prompted businesses to eliminate bureaucratic practices and layers of management and that triggered the revolution. That can happen in government.

The “VP of People” job description stands out but it’s hardly unique. The work environment suggested in the description would be challenging but rewarding. The potential to create that environment exists in every knowledge organization, including government. But it has to start with civil service reform and HR needs to be ready to provide leadership. Recommendation: Agency leaders need to define what they expect from HR.

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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