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A Blueprint for Improving Government's HR Function

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Government, at its core, is its employees and their commitment to serve the country. That fact is too often overlooked. While technology enables employees to make better, faster decisions, until artificial intelligence replaces the acquired knowledge of employees, agency performance will continue to depend on the skill and dedication of government workers. As such, civil service reform is increasingly important because workforce rules and regulations are out of sync with current management thinking. To use a basketball analogy, government is still shooting two handed set shots.

The April memo from the Office of Management and Budget announcing the “Plan for Reforming the Federal Government” included a lengthy discussion under the heading “plan to maximize employee performance.”  

There is potential in virtually every organization to raise performance levels significantly, considerably more than the 2 percent to 3 percent typical of initiatives focused on efficiency. The gains come from empowering employees and creating a positive work environment. The key is convincing leaders, executives and managers to agree to a supportive approach to workforce management.

Often missing from discussions about performance is that the human resource function has to be ready to support reform. The prospect of a new director of the Office of Personnel Management—Jeff Pon, President Trump’s nominee for the job, is awaiting Senate confirmation and would be the first HR professional to hold the position—makes this an ideal time to build the new capability. It provides an opportunity to move HR from a primarily transactional function to one that advises and supports executives and managers through major transition.

When the state of Tennessee undertook reform in 2012, its Chief Human Resources Officer, Rebecca Hunter, committed to upgrade the state’s HR function based on the Baldrige Performance Excellence Framework. In a recent speech at a conference of the Tennessee Center for Performance Excellence Hunter discussed how the department has benefited:

“We've been working to shift the key focus of our human resource professionals from transactions and compliance to that of a strategic, trusted advisor focused on the needs of the organization. What we've found is that through the use of the Baldrige framework, Human Resources can be positioned to contribute to the organization improving operationally by driving continuous improvement and performance excellence throughout the enterprise.”

The Baldrige program started in the 1980s with manufacturing and is now extended to healthcare, education and nonprofits. For reasons that would be interesting to explore, the strategy has seen extremely limited adoption in federal agencies.

Tennessee initiated government reform several years ago, as discussed in a June column, “Agencies Could Learn a Lot from Tennessee's Shift to Pay for Performance.” It’s been a solid success. As the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program explains on its website:

“Performance excellence refers to an integrated approach to organizational performance management that results in:

  • Delivery of ever-improving value to customers and stakeholders, contributing to organizational sustainability;
  • Improvement of overall organizational effectiveness and capabilities;
  • Organizational and personal learning.”

That is an apt description of the role HR plays in the best managed companies. HR adds value by partnering with executives and managers to achieve their goals. Reforming government will involve significant change and HR can help managers sustain employee engagement throughout the process.

It’s important to note that making the commitment does not require an acknowledgement that the function is ineffective or necessitate an increased budget. It’s consistent with the idea of continuous improvement.

In 2017, Tennessee’s Department of Human Resources described the agency’s commitment to performance excellence in a 59-page paper. The following selected excerpts describe DOHR’s role relative to the seven Baldrige criteria.

“The Commissioner of DOHR reports directly to the Governor, serves on the Cabinet, and along with the Executive Leadership Team sets DOHR’s goals and objectives in alignment with the Governor’s goals and priorities.”

  • Leadership -- DOHR’s Executive Leadership Team meets annually to review the agency’s mission, vision, and values, during the strategic planning process in order to determine if they continue to accurately reflect the organization and what it strives to accomplish.
  • Strategy -- The strategic business planning model, developed by DOHR for the department, is a balanced approach that involves agency executive leadership collecting, assessing, analyzing, and developing the strategic plan.
  • Customers -- DOHR solicits customer feedback to ensure services are delivered timely, appropriately, and satisfactorily. This information is solicited across the state through listening tours, employee meetings, human resource officer meetings and retreats, quarterly talent management roundtable meetings . . . and conferences.
  • Measurement, analysis, and knowledge management -- DOHR has initiated performance measurement, identified key service areas that are critical to the mission, identified and defined the key data that indicate how effectively and efficiently the services are being delivered, and recorded the data in the Key Service Indicator Dashboard,
  • Workforce -- The capability and capacity of the DOHR workforce is designed to ensure that staff is well positioned to support the strategic directions of state government, now and into the future. Each position is documented with its expected work outcomes and identifies the position’s minimum capability criteria, including the knowledge, skills, abilities, and competencies needed to be successful in their assigned role.
  • Operations -- The products and services are reviewed and developed in alignment with the Governor's vision and priorities. Processes are developed through task forces, or within divisions, and improved through various process management tools.
  • Results -- DOHR’s vision, to strategically drive transformation through innovative human resource leadership and practices to shape the best workforce for state government, could not be accomplished without data driven decision making and intelligent risk taking.

This year the DOHR staff is relying on SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analyses, based on the seven criteria, to improve HR practices (recruiting, workforce planning, etc.)

“What DOHR and many others have learned,” said Bob Fangmeyer, director of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program, “is that all parts and functions of the organization must be managed and improved as a system in order to achieve sustainable excellence.”

The core question for HR or any function, as Fangmeyer noted, is, How can our organization get better?

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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