Surprise, Ralph!

There ain't gonna be no personnel reform.

Much like the Honeymooners episode when Ralph Kramden popped into his apartment fully expecting a surprise party, only to discover there is no party, so goes personnel reform in the federal government.

"Don't you see? That's the surprise, Ralph," says his dimwit neighbor Ed Norton. "There ain't gonna be no party!"

If Ralph had looked back over the clues that convinced him the party planners were up to something, he would have realized they really didn't add up to much. We're at a similar juncture with respect to all the planning, rhetoric, imagination, public relations and political buildup around human resources reform.

In the aftermath of an appellate court ruling striking down the labor relations aspects of the Homeland Security Department's human resources plan, and the ominous precedent it sets for a similar challenge to the Pentagon's National Security Personnel System, would-be reformers of the personnel systems find themselves, much like Ralph, standing bug-eyed in an empty room. Now they need to unwind from their reform fantasies and get back to business.

Like Ralph, HR reformers thought they saw a party plan. They linked together superficial aspects of pay, performance evaluation and other practices, and saw fundamental change. But missing from the speculation, machinations and hoopla about HR modernization are the fundamental elements of real reform-delegation, accountability and variability.

Unfortunately, there's little, if any, executive or legislative interest in addressing these fundamental elements. Without reconsidering the limits on what the federal government expects and is willing to tolerate from its managers, any change would be only cosmetic.

The failings of the personnel system go far deeper than everyday processes. The tensions in pay, job satisfaction, labor relations, retention and quality are signs of more profound cultural issues rooted in how the government views delegation, accountability and variability. This vision inhibits innovation, fragments communication, undermines loyalty and trust, and, frankly, takes the fun out of working for Uncle Sam.

Outdated HR constructs guarantee that government will continue to lag behind the private sector in the competition for talent. Pay for performance, for example, was the rage in the private sector more than 20 years ago.

Delegate Responsibility

Reformers allege that pay for performance depends on delegation. But, honestly, what decisions are being delegated? An annual pay decision that is reviewed first by a computer system and then by two or three subsequent officials or committees can hardly be described as meaningful change.

A line manager should have singular responsibility not only for pay actions, but for hiring, developmental and disciplinary actions as well. Without unfettered personnel authority for managers, reform is merely a shift in the calculation and timing of a routine pay decision. Such limited delegation is unlikely to affect the quality of overall workforce performance or open the gates to additional HR enhancements.

Build In Accountability

HR reforms don't look as though they will increase managers' accountability for pay and other personnel decisions because they delegate only limited pay authorities and virtually no authority for any other aspect of human resources.

True reform would be braver and would grant managers new latitude in personnel management and measurement, and hold them accountable for how they used the authorities to meet the mission, lead people, keep them happy, and retain and develop talent. Most management training related to HR reform is not about new authorities or accountability, but instead covers trivialities such as how to operate the tools needed for new processes.

Accept Variability

Reformers have gone out of their way to ensure that no one will face any risk or lose anything as a result of HR changes. Important matters such as pay raises, bargaining rules, hiring standards and oversight of managers will remain pretty much the same. In an Orwellian twist, this obsession with sameness has become key to reformers' argument for change, illustrating just how limited their vision is.

Managers and employees must accept the risks associated with variability in personnel programs. Reforms should not treat everyone the same and managers should be responsible for wide variations in how the programs will operate, and affect employees and their pocketbooks.

Real reform would bring a jolting end to the long-standing custodial approach to personnel management, in which government tries to attend to every worker's every need in the same way. It would encourage self-reliance among employees and promote its promise to pay people based on performance. "Fairness" and "sameness" would no longer be nearly synonymous as they have been for decades.

Without fundamentally changing legislative, regulatory and habitual bureaucratic perspectives, personnel reforms will continue to be as real as Ralph's surprise party.

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