How Agencies Can Get More From Their Employees Despite Budget Cuts

igor kisselev/

Human resources professionals in the federal government are prepared to do more with less, according to a new report, but also view systematic changes as a key element of workforce improvement.

Chief human capital officers and other HR leaders told the Partnership for Public Service that budget cuts have made it difficult, though not impossible, to measure performance and make smarter personnel decisions. PPS and Grant Thornton LLP interviewed 62 CHCOs and HR officials to determine the challenges they face in managing the federal workforce.

In addition to less overall money, HR leaders have struggled with a lack of stability and flexibility in dealing with cuts. The CHCOs have not been able to plan their own spending reductions strategically and the resulting cuts to training have mitigated their capacity to do their jobs.

More funding is not the sole solution to improving employee engagement and efficiency, but the HR representatives repeatedly told interviewers Congress, the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget should undo cuts to training and related travel expenses. Six in 10 respondents said they could use more financial resources, while two in three said their offices could benefit from additional staffing resources.

Tightened purse strings have also led to cuts in bonuses and performance awards, making it more difficult for HR officials to recognize good performance. Employees feel demoralized and undervalued, according to the report, and are leaving federal service. Managers are then not hiring to replace employees in equal numbers, the HR leaders said, due to budget constraints.

Still, agencies must do a better job of operating more efficiently. In some cases it may not be necessary to conduct a one-for-one replacement of departing workers, but agencies are not adequately using analytics to make that determination, the officials said.

“If you have 100 people and five are retiring, people just want to replace five people instead of asking if 100 was the right number in the first place,” one CHCO told the interviewers.

Making these decisions requires not just the data but also people who can interpret them, the HR officials said. Such an investment can help agencies operate more efficiently in the long term.

“We recognize we are going to be in lean years and we have to be smarter about what we do,” another CHCO said.

HR officials have run into some pushback in instituting new initiatives, however. Top-level supervisors at most agencies have jumped on board, they said, but when they have asked for cooperation from second-tier managers “it was like they felt we asked them to land on the moon,” an HR leader said.

The managers were especially reluctant to participate in performance management programs.

 “Everywhere in the government, performance management creates problems in the workforce,” a CHCO said. “It is a horrible process and very painful. Everyone here truly hates it.”

Managers should improve not just their relationships with HR professionals, but also with their own employees. They should especially spend more time with poorly performing workers and institute probationary periods, the report said. The CHCOs acknowledged, however, sometimes dealing with a low performer is more trouble than it is worth, especially when firing them could lead to no replacement at all.

“Nine out of 10 times the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], the union and your own general counsel are working against you,” an HR official said. “Who wants to go through that?”

Other reforms Congress and the administration should consider, according to the HR leaders, are changes to the veterans preference in hiring -- which can hamstring agencies from hiring qualified individuals and meeting other diversity requirements -- and a more fundamental civil service overhaul including revamping job classifications. 

(Image via igor kisselev/

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