The federal workforce is shifting and growing at a fierce rate, and human capital chiefs are in the middle of it.
Federal human resources leaders have their hands full. They are knee-deep in the first presidential transition since the chief human capital officer position was created. And they are facing an influx of job applications driven by President Obama's recommitment to public service and the government's unprecedented involvement in stabilizing the faltering economy.
This combination of shuffling and growing the federal workforce has thrust CHCOs into the spotlight, and magnified their importance in the C-ranks.
"This is a great time to be a CHCO if you want to make a difference; if you want to really have an opportunity for impact, boy, do you have it," says John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit instrumental in creating the position seven years ago, as part of the 2002 Homeland Security Act. "It's not a good time to be a CHCO if you were looking for a quiet, kind of maintain the status quo situation."
Obama's election could usher in an era of acute and widespread interest in government, much like John F. Kennedy's call to service in the 1960s swelled the civil service for decades to come, Palguta says. By 2012, the government likely will have hired about 584,000 full-time employees, he says. Some of the recruits will plug holes created by attrition, but Obama has said he will add several hundred thousand people to the workforce as part of his government reform agenda.
Combine that with pressure to pick up the pace in hiring for jobs related to the economic stimulus package and maintain institutional knowledge as the political leadership changes and baby boomers retire, and CHCOs have their work cut out for them.
The presidential transition has given HR chiefs their first true test of whether they are meeting their long-term workforce planning goals.
"Some of the old pros in the group really educated us about transition as a moment of opportunity to galvanize ourselves into action, to get serious about how we can help," says James McDermott, CHCO at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "What kind of change agents can we be?"
McDermott says CHCOs began planning for the transition early in 2008, long before they knew who would win the presidential election. "What we did mainly was to position people, saying: 'Get ready, get ready'-calibrate them on what are the right attitudes for the people who are leaving and the people who are coming. We want to make sure that your bosses leave people who know what they're doing," he says.
The personnel chiefs formed a welcoming committee of sorts. "We reach out to people before they actually start here, and start providing them with information they need to make the transition more seamless," says Anthony Arnolie, CHCO for the National Science Foundation and chairman of the Small Agency Council.
The Interior Department and NASA are developing systems to contact new employees electronically immediately after they've accepted positions and get them situated before they arrive. McDermott says he'd like to see those systems offered to other agencies through the Interior Department's National Business Center.
The transition also requires realigning staff with the new administration's goals. Mari Barr Santangelo, Justice Department CHCO, says she is preparing for an 18 percent increase in civil rights division staffing to meet the Obama team's priorities. The challenge is working with the division's human resources office to hire people quickly, but in keeping with merit system principles.
"It's a fast initiative, and we're working very hard to support them," Santangelo says.
With the transition comes a renewed commitment and interest in public service-prodded by equal parts inspiration and desperation.
The inspiration is a hallmark of the Obama administration and its popularity with younger Americans, eager to enter a career path the president has promised to once again make "cool." The desperation is the lagging economy, with experts predicting that the job market will not turn around until at least 2010. Government is one of the few employers still hiring and its needs are greater than ever as agencies staff up to oversee spending under the $787 billion economic stimulus package and the Treasury Department's Troubled Asset Relief Program.
"In addition to everything else that is changing, in the context of normal changes for a presidential administration, the HR arena is particularly active, not only because of the change of administration, but because of the demands being placed on government," Palguta says. "Folks are looking to government to be part of the solution. You've got to have a highly competent, engaged workforce to meet those demands."
Agencies that are involved in economic stabilization and finance are proving to be particularly popular. "We're getting massive amounts of résumés," says Janet Murphy, CHCO at the Federal Housing Finance Agency. "We've had a 100 percent increase in our volume in résumés, particularly in our mission-related positions."
FHFA was created in 2008, through the merger of the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight and the Federal Housing Finance Board, as part of efforts to reform and regulate mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. "We're at the forefront of looking into these major issues for our nation, and I think we're all very proud to be a part of it," Murphy says.
The influx of applications is a mixed blessing for CHCOs. On one hand, there is no shortage of talent. But on the other, it is difficult to match candidates with appropriate positions and prevent bottlenecks. "We tend to mistreat applicants," McDermott says. "They send in applications and send them into a black hole, and in way too many cases the applicant never hears anything back from the government." The intelligence agencies-which experienced a similar outpouring of interest following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks-have implemented an internal résumé-sharing system to ensure qualified applicants don't fall through the cracks.
Agencies also are mounting more sophisticated and targeted recruiting efforts, by involving senior officials in job fairs.
"Instead of having the personnel guy show up, these managers go and tell people, 'I need you for this,' 'This is what I do,' 'If you're a good engineer, if you're a good scientist you need to help me, come and do what I do,'" McDermott says. "These are very effective messages to take out on the stump."
For temporary increases in work such as those created by the Recovery Act, agencies are attempting to lure back retirees who know the ropes.
The National Science Foundation is among those agencies. "Bringing them back on a temporary basis allows us to significantly reduce the learning curve," Arnolie says.
The presidential transition and economic crisis have put some of CHCOs' standing concerns on the back burner, but they are likely to bubble up again.
The weak economy apparently has softened the blow of an expected retirement wave, for instance. McDermott notes he is seeing a 4 percent attrition rate at his office, rather than the expected pace of 6 percent or 7 percent. Officials warn, however, that the problem has been delayed, not eliminated. Santangelo says about 70 percent of the Justice Department's executive-level employees will be eligible to retire by 2013-an issue the agency is confronting with ramped-up recruitment and training programs.
Ron Sanders, CHCO at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is continuing to streamline and co-ordinate recruitment, hiring and promotion systems across the spy agencies. He says unifying workforce management systems-especially pay-for-performance programs-is crucial to DNI's core mission.
"This effort has been as much about trying to build a community as it has been about trying to create a compensation system that rewards excellence," Sanders says. "Our pay-for-performance effort has had that larger strategic goal in mind, of literally welding that community together."
Resolving pay system disparities helps grease the wheels for one of Sanders' recent projects: a joint-duty program that gives mid-level officers rotational assignments to enhance their training and build camaraderie. Uniform pay policies make the process smoother by eliminating confusion when officers transfer among agencies.
Initially, DNI allowed employees to volunteer for rotational assignments through a Web site. But Sanders said traffic to the site has been low and a more effective way to match officer talents to agency needs is to set up a "lending" system to backfill vacancies.
Pay for performance always has been politically controversial-and has grown even more so with the change in administration. The Defense Department has halted conversions to its National Security Personnel System, pending a review. A group of Democratic lawmakers in April urged the Office of Management and Budget to suspend similar pay-for-performance systems governmentwide, to address concerns from unions and government workers.
But Sanders is a vocal defender of such systems, at least for the intelligence agencies. "The power of that in helping to transform the community can't be overstated," he says.
Another long-standing issue on the minds of chief human capital officers is the slow and cumbersome security clearance process. Improvements are critical in both speed and quality of adjudication.
"In our case, one of the things that we have tried to do is open up our ranks to first- and second-generation Americans," Sanders says. "There were policies in place that made security clearances for first- and second-generation Americans problematic." Candidates with dual citizenship or heavy ties to their descendent country, for instance, were effectively disqualified from public service-a practice that hindered efforts to hire multilingual employees, according to Sanders.
"Those [changes] will take some time to work their way into the clearance process," he says. "Our aim is to make our ranks more welcoming."
The Government Accountability Office has long recognized the government's security clearance process as a problem. In 2005, it placed the Defense Department's system on the high-risk list of management problems. More recently, GAO commended Defense for processing clearances faster, but said work remained.
The Path Forward
Recently confirmed Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry has repeatedly testified before congressional committees that he believes in undertaking major reforms in small bites. Deal with immediate problems that have concrete solutions first, his argument goes, or you'll end up stuck in legislative and administrative limbo.
During a May 12 meeting with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, Berry signaled that when he is ready to tackle major reforms, he will use the group as a sounding board.
"The idea was we're trying to earn some credibility with some quick hits, and then belly up to the bar and fix some fundamental things about the federal system," says McDermott, who attended the meeting.
The meeting might have come as a welcome relief to dedicated CHCOs, who last year were concerned a new administration might lose sight of long-term personnel planning. "I have to say, as a federal employee I'm very encouraged by the guiding principles of the president," Santangelo says. "I'm excited about John Berry's leadership and how we're going to be approaching hiring and work life." Berry and the Chief Human Capital Officers Council are "very much in sync as to what they view as the top-priority things," McDermott adds.
But while CHCOs appear to be on the way to meeting their most basic goal-to get everyone, from mid-level managers to officials at the highest levels of the White House, thinking about long-term management and development of the workforce-their approach is changing. In particular, they are looking out for more than their own interests.
"This is not . . . the original thrust of the CHCO Council," McDermott says. "The CHCOs themselves, if you read their charters, it's all about their own agencies. It's not so much about collaboration with others. It's collaboration that's come into vogue in recent years."