HR pros offer bleak assessment of federal managers

Adam Gryko/

One-third of federal human resources professionals don’t think agency managers have the skills to succeed, according to a new report.

The bleak assessment of agency line and operations managers shows a growing unease among HR professionals in the current political and fiscal environment, ranging from concern over potential workforce reductions to the increasing competition for talented employees. Thirty-three percent of the 55 HR leaders surveyed this past spring by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and consulting firm Grant Thornton LLP said managers and supervisors in their agencies either lacked leadership skills entirely, or had them “to a limited extent.” That’s an increase of 15 percentage points from a similar 2008 survey.

Forty-nine percent of those interviewed in 2012 believed managers had the talent to succeed “to a moderate extent.” Just 18 percent of those surveyed for the 2012 report, however, believed managers possessed the right skills to be successful at their jobs to a “great extent” or a “very great extent.” The report, which called that statistic “alarming,” said it was 26 percentage points less than findings from a 2008 survey.

“It does jump out,” Robert Shea, a principal at Grant Thornton, said of HR professionals’ assessment of managerial talent. The federal workforce has “horrible morale issues” right now due to negative characterizations of government employees from political leaders and shrinking budgets, among other hurdles, he said. People realize how important leadership skills are in that kind of environment. “You can see who is really good and can handle the pressure, and who’s not,” Shea said.

Chief human capital officers across government anticipate change due to smaller budgets, higher employee turnover and the upcoming political transition, regardless of which presidential candidate wins in November. Survey participants did not necessarily view change as negative, but expressed concern over the government’s ability to implement needed reforms in time to “prevent disruptions to programs, services or benefits provided by their organizations,” the report noted. Shea said CHCOs need to raise their profile in the administration and on Capitol Hill, and make a case for what they need. “They are not on par with [chief information officers and chief financial officers], but dammit, they sure should be,” Shea said. “They are responsible for the greatest resource for the federal government, and they ought to be taken seriously.”

Survey respondents also said the federal pay system is obsolete and inefficient, performance management still is ineffective in many agencies, veterans’ preference in hiring does not always work as intended, and a more uniform approach to HR standards and information technology systems is necessary to improve government operations. They also cited insufficient succession planning at their agencies and skills gaps among HR staff as ongoing challenges.

Despite the weaknesses they cited, HR leaders reported progress in hiring reform, hiring more vets and increasing diversity in the federal workforce. “CHCOs might think they are making progress in hiring reform, but I’m not sure that extends to their customers,” Shea said. “There is still work to be done there.”

As for their own human resources ranks, those surveyed also said they’ve been working with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council and the Office of Personnel Management to improve the competence of HR staff throughout government.

“CHCOs were willing to confront and find ways to deal with many of the challenges they face,” the report said. “They were realistic about the fact that they cannot simply continue to do business as usual and expect to be successful, given the current operating environment. Most of those interviewed had a clear vision of the changes they needed to make, or were in the process of making, to help their agencies.”

(Image via Adam Gryko/

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