Crunch Time

Agencies must build a skills-based workforce for the 21st century.

What will the Obama administration do to ensure development of a strong, skills-based federal workforce? Given the country's financial meltdown, ballooning deficits, deepening housing crisis and on-going national security challenges, this is a critical question to answer in coming months.

Agencies must take a strategic, multifaceted approach to human capital planning. This means considering requirements across the spectrum, starting with workforce planning and recruitment, and encompassing hiring, onboarding, development, performance management and succession strategy. If done conscientiously, this will transform the federal workforce dramatically and ensure all agencies have the skills needed to meet both current and future mission requirements.

The Office of Personnel Management's End-to-End Hiring Roadmap, introduced in 2008, provides a starting point for agencies. But the Obama administration undoubtedly will have its own ideas and priorities. The new administration should reaffirm the importance of establishing governmentwide metrics to gauge agencies' performance in human capital planning. It also should endorse a comprehensive target of hiring new employees in no more than 80 calendar days, as called for in the OPM roadmap. These actions will help senior executives and human capital professionals streamline hiring, and make government more competitive with the private sector.

It's critical that managers work closely with human capital specialists to determine specific workforce requirements, identify appropriate applicants, and accelerate hiring and onboarding. At one Cabinet department where the secretary made this a priority last summer, a team of managers and HR officials huddled together for three days and committed to cutting the number of hiring steps from 36 to 12; reducing sign-off signatures from 19 to three; and slashing processing time from three days to five hours. So, collaboration between line managers and HR people is possible, it just requires top-level leadership to make it happen.

It's critical to redesign federal hiring-keeping the needs of today's job seekers in mind. They want simple, user-friendly applications to complete. They want to be kept informed about their status, and won't wait forever to get an offer, especially when private employers act quickly to recruit new hires. OPM is calling on agencies to create shorter job announcements written in plain English, not bureaucratese; to communicate regularly with applicants (at least four times) throughout the hiring process; and to onboard new hires quickly and efficiently.

To drive home the importance of strategic human capital planning, the new administration should make recruitment and retention of a strong federal workforce a high-visibility priority, and link it directly to issues of government efficiency, taxpayer accountability and even national security. President Obama should stipulate specific workforce development targets and metrics for each Cabinet secretary. Setting such expectations will help align agencies around meeting existing and future mission challenges and create a more responsive and nimble federal government.

The success of the Obama administration will hinge not only on the president's ability to articulate policy (something he, as a candidate, was good at doing), but also on his administration's ability to implement policy at the departmental, agency and programmatic levels. Obama will have to rely on the federal workforce to move his agenda forward.

Given these realities, putting a high priority on strategic human capital planning-and on developing a strong, skills-based workforce to implement policies-is vital not just to the success of the new administration, but to the long-term well-being of the nation.

Bill Leidinger is former assistant secretary for management and chief human capital officer at the Education Department. He can be reached at wleidinger@msn.com.

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