Putting People First

For chief human capital officers, hiring reform is key to making government an attractive place to work despite limited pay and resources.

Federal agencies have a lengthy to-do list when it comes to personnel issues. President Obama has asked top government leaders to take on a complete overhaul of complex hiring policies, roll out telework programs and stand up labor-management partnerships. Responsibility for designing and implementing these broad initiatives falls to chief human capital officers, who in the past year have been held accountable for progress in these areas.

On top of the president's mandates, CHCOs also are managing their agency-specific workforce concerns and battling budget cuts that threaten their ability to recruit and retain top talent. The federal human resources arena in 2011 is no longer just about hiring new employees, managing payroll and classifying jobs-it also requires strategic planning to position agencies for quick response to changing needs for critical skills.

"Frankly, as the president charges us to work more on making government more efficient and more effective, especially given budgetary constraints, that list is going to get longer," says Veterans Affairs Department CHCO John Sepulveda. "The days of having a personnel director processing personnel actions-those days are over."

A Full Plate

In an era of doing more with less, CHCOs say they must carefully balance available resources to both meet governmentwide workforce initiatives and human capital priorities within their agencies. In addition to addressing hiring, labor issues, performance management and telework, they are developing succession plans, improving work-life offerings, and boosting employee training and development opportunities.

CHCOs agree that sacrifices must be made to stay within their means while accomplishing mission-critical functions.

Chief of the Year: Human Capital Jeff Neal, CHCO at the Homeland Security Department, believes there always are additional economies to be found without sacrificing key initiatives. For example, DHS consolidated four candidate development programs for Senior Executive Service members into one, reducing costs and training additional employees as a result. Telling the HR community to look at what it is doing and saying it must do less is a mistake, he says. "If in the end I don't have enough money to pay for everything I want to do, I'm not going to not do something important," he says. "The game we sometimes play in Washington is to identify the most important thing we have and then cut it. No, we don't."

Having limited resources challenges CHCOs charged with recruiting and retaining a top-notch workforce, particularly as they also are being asked to implement President Obama's hiring reform agenda by eliminating knowledge, skills and abilities statements, reducing time to hire, and boosting manager involvement.

"Right now being a CHCO is a real tough job," says John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service. "With negative public perceptions, a pay freeze and calls for cutbacks, you are looking for top-notch people who will be the best at doing the jobs for which you are hiring."

Reginald Wells, CHCO at the Social Security Administration, notes that it's important to maximize funds to responsibly fill vacancies and hold onto top talent. Sharp budget cuts have left SSA unable to replace every employee who leaves, but Wells says his agency has worked hard to recruit diverse candidates and provide them the training they need. The agency retains approximately 80 percent of new hires after two years by offering a compelling mission and opportunities for employee development, he adds.

CHCOs agree that keeping the workforce engaged and excited is important to meeting mission objectives, particularly when pay raises are off the table and agencies are facing a potential retirement wave. For example, the Homeland Security Department has invested in a leadership development program to bring top performers into managerial roles, and SSA has made career advancement opportunities and employee training high priorities. VA has improved its work-life offerings by providing information about health and wellness to its workforce. These kinds of investments are important because agencies will continue to place high demands on employees, says Sepulveda.

"It really forces CHCOs to step back and be creative," says Gail Lovelace, who in November 2010 was appointed chief leadership officer at the General Services Administration after serving as the agency's CHCO. "You're looking for other ways to get the kinds of resources you need in an organization. If you don't have the ability to hire and bring people in, make sure you take care of the people who are there."

Elevating HR

Federal CHCOs are in the unique position of having to manage their own workforce along with employee issues agencywide. But many acknowledge that HR professionals haven't received the kind of training and support they need.

A Partnership for Public Service report published in 2010 found 46 percent of 68 CHCOs surveyed say their HR staffs lack the skills necessary to launch new governmentwide hiring practices. In addition, the CHCOs said growing demands on HR personnel to improve agency hiring operations and workforce management could make the situation worse.

"There are 23,000 federal HR professionals, but not all of them in the assessment of CHCOs have the skills they need and too often lack the competencies going forward," says Palguta. "This is particularly critical because now with budgets [agencies] are having difficulty not only hiring new [HR employees] but training the ones they have."

The Chief Human Capital Officers Council and the Office of Personnel Management are working to roll out Human Resources University, a Web-based platform offering a course catalog, career guide for current and future HR professionals, and information on specific topics, including recruitment and benefits. The site is designed to help guide the career trajectory of federal HR managers while ensuring they receive the technical and core competencies they need to excel in their field, according to officials.

"We have treated ourselves like redheaded stepchildren, taking care of everyone else but not ourselves," says Lovelace. "Nothing is more important than people, and we need to make sure HR people are there to support the organization." HR University is an efficient and cost-effective way to train personnel professionals, for whom key skills are applicable no matter where they work, says Neal. Agencies tend to develop their own costly education programs, and employees end up with HR training that varies in quality, or sometimes receive no training at all, he notes.

"Developing it over and over and over again is a very poor use of resources, and given our budget situation we can't afford to spend money multiple times to get the same result," Neal says.

Agencies also face a brain drain among HR professionals who are ready to retire, says Jeff Pon, former CHCO at the Energy Department and now a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton. He notes that training is particularly important to prepare employees to carry out human capital initiatives. "It's vital for us to train the new workforce on what we knew before and have the existing workforce to actually mentor and coach the new workforce on the basics of HR," he says. "There's a huge gap in terms of skills when you talk about position classification and management."

Collaboration Is Key

Agency leaders point to the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, a group chaired by the director of OPM and the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, as an important resource for managing the many issues facing federal CHCOs. The council provides a venue for officials to come together to solve problems collaboratively, share best practices and address initiatives like HR University, hiring reform, labor relations and performance management, they say.

SSA's Wells is the last CHCO left in government who was converted to the position under a 2002 law requiring federal agencies to designate or appoint chief human capital officers who also would serve on an advisory council. He says although agencies have different missions, performance management systems and workforces, a common commitment to public service and governmentwide hiring and pay structures create a sense of community among CHCOs.

"Agencies do not make up a monolith," says Wells. "There is an obvious thread that runs through. There are so many commonalities that it really has helped to have a group of people you can come together with and they can understand what the trials and tribulations are."

Lovelace says where agencies used to focus on their own workforce issues, they now are being asked to work collaboratively to build a federal HR community. To be successful, especially when money is tight, the collective effort must go beyond just the CHCO Council, she notes. "HR at the end of the day is not just the responsibility of people in the HR office," she says. "It is the responsibility of every manager across the organization. It really requires us to be creative and not just depend on getting more money."

Ultimately, CHCOs say they are hard at work managing initiatives to transform the federal government into a place where people want to work.

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