People Problems

Timothy B. ClarkIt's too bad that government's reputation remains so poor that our presidential candidates can't bring themselves to promise much-needed reforms. The federal human capital crisis thus remains out of public view during this year's campaigns.

In the private sector, by contrast, top executives are closely focused on making sure they have the workers they need to compete. Corporate leaders know they must be "field marshals in the war for talent," as William Taylor, founding editor of Fast Company, the hot young business magazine, told 1,200 listeners at this summer's Excellence in Government 2000 conference.

Here in Washington, more than two decades have drifted by since government last undertook a full-scale review of its personnel systems. Back in the dark ages of 1978, when the last service reform act was written, personal computers had yet to come into common use.

Now, federal agencies are suffering. The rush to downsize has proceeded with hardly a nod toward work force planning. While talent retires from the top of the hierarchy, hiring freezes prevent replenishment at the lower ranks. Emergency remedies have been piecemeal-exceptions for the Federal Aviation Administration or for a few high-level IRS jobs, bonuses or quality-of-life initiatives in the military. Studies cutting across many agencies show human resources management as their principal management challenge: Government Executive's Government Performance Project has given the 20 agencies it has studied lower grades in human resources than in any other management function.

A necessary precursor to reform must be acknowledgement of the problem. And here, progress can be reported. Talk in the plenary and breakout sessions and in the hallways at the Excellence in Government conference focused more on people problems than any other topic. Experts who spoke at the conference, including Paul Light of the Brookings Institution and Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, were forthright in declaring a crisis. Comptroller General David Walker has done so as well, as Susannah Figura reports in her cover story this month.

Figura's article, "The Human Touch," details the kinds of personnel reforms Walker is attempting to bring to the General Accounting Office-reforms that would make it easier than under present rules to shape the workforce to meet present and future needs. Walker has had difficulty this summer getting the legislative changes he needs, but at this writing seems likely to succeed before Congress adjourns. If he does, GAO's reforms could set an example for the rest of government.

Voinovich seems ready to wage a high-profile campaign for change. His Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Government Management, Restructuring and the District of Columbia has held hearings on the issue and will issue a report this fall. Recommendations likely will be comprehensive, ranging from recruiting and training to motivation and incentives for retention. The former big-city mayor and Ohio governor, a serious student of government management, told the conference that when his report lands on the new President's desk, it may be titled "Your First Crisis: Human Capital."

Although the presidential candidates have not addressed these issues directly, neither have they indulged in the usual practice of running against the government they seek to lead. Thus one may hope that the political climate in 2001 might be unusually hospitable to reform. Tim sig2 5/3/96

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