As Trump Budget Cuts Loom, Feds Adjust Their Training

More than half of federal human resources specialists fear that coming budget cuts will impinge on training aimed at improving employee engagement, officials and former officials noted at a Wednesday panel sponsored by the National Academy of Public Administration and the private Management Concepts.

In an online survey conducted this April of mostly human capital officers, their deputies and agency chief learning officers, respondents chose as their greatest concern the fear that budget cuts would impact their ability to prioritize training to “meet the most critical skills gaps,” the survey, administered by Federal News Radio, showed.

Despite the expanding role of chief learning officers, only three out of 10 valued that position, while 80 percent are using outside providers for training, results released last month showed. Some 55 percent are using new the new governmentwide training contract from the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration called HCATS, while 70 percent have used OPM’s Unlocktalent.gov tool to improve engagement. Twenty-seven percent of respondents had already seen their training budget decline.

NAPA President Teresa Gerton said she felt “whiplashed” in reading just a week’s worth of Washington Post stories about White House plans for agency reorganization, buyouts and cuts in retirement. “When you as a leader can’t get through the daily paper without fearing for your own job, you know you’ve got a challenge” in taking care of your workforce, she said.

Her predecessor at NAPA, Dan Blair, spoke of “rather steep cuts” planned at the State Department and Environmental Protection Agency, among others. The key to managing performance during change, he said, is to “keep your eye on the mission, even while the table and chairs around you are changing and many [colleagues] won’t be around.”

Steve Maier, president of Management Concepts, described a lesson in how not to do things, citing his own layoff from Ford Motor Co. in the early 1980s. The company summoned his 38-member team to a room and read aloud the names of those being fired, he recalled.

Tim Bowden, Management Concept’s executive director for consulting delivery and people and performance, stressed the need during downsizing to focus on filling critical skills gaps, even as “the first people who leave are usually the first people you want to keep, because they know they can get into the market.” One solution is “collaboration with other agencies, such as in shared services and category management,” he said.

Amy Benson Rogers, director of the Treasury Executive Institute at the Treasury Department, said “change has an emotional and physical side,” and the closer it gets to you and your family, the more it is felt. She described how Treasury has modified its training curriculum to reflect the fact that “people’s attention spans have changed—they check their smartphone nine times per minute,” she said.

Much more training is being done using on-demand Internet vehicles.  “Some people in the same building wouldn’t even come downstairs” for traditional lectures with tables, chairs and sticky notes, she said. She added there is an emphasis on asking employees how they learn best and on the value of “peer learning,” which OPM calls “relationship learning.”                                                 

Ann Conyers, director of talent management at the Defense Department, said changes there are “going well, with retooling of talent.” The key, she said, is communication, brown-bag lunches and town halls to talk to the workforce and to manage expectations to ease some of the unease.”

Nancy Kingsbury, managing director for applied research and methods at the Government Accountability Office, who has 48 years of federal service at seven agencies, said the only time of change that compares with the Trump era is the mid-1990s, when Republicans took control of Congress. The GAO staff shrunk from 5,500 to 3,200, she said, and “we still managed to serve the legislative branch.” GAO staff testified 100 times in the first 100 days. “We took it one day at a time,” Kingsbury said. 

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