Panelists call for change in human resources workforce and mission

Federal human resources offices must attract employees with a wider variety of skills and change the processes they rely on so they can devote more time and energy to strategic efforts, HR leaders said during a forum on Tuesday.

"The human resources field out there is changing rapidly," said John Palguta, vice president of policy for the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which hosted the discussion. "We're looking at speeding up the hiring process, possibilities of pay reform in some shape or another, a new era of labor relations, perhaps, training and development.…The concern is that first line of defense may have some holes."

Gail Lovelace, chief human capital officer at the General Services Administration, said she thought human resources officials often had difficulty focusing on their own personnel and training needs because their jobs require them to look out for other offices. But the panelists agreed that as economic stimulus spending and the pending retirement wave prompt large rounds of federal hiring, changes in the HR workforce are long overdue.

A related challenge for human resources professionals, the panelists said, is finding a place for themselves in strategic conversations about the future of their agencies, even while they perform traditional tasks such as hiring and benefits processing.

"We don't have a ticket to the strategy dance if we can't deliver on the transactional stuff," said Jeff Neal, CHCO at the Homeland Security Department. "If I have brilliant ideas for the future, but I can't get jobs filled on time, no one's going to listen to me."

Rick Hastings, deputy CHCO at the Treasury Department, said human resources officers should recruit people who can do more than the basics. For instance, skills in management consulting and knowledge of agencies' missions would be helpful, he said.

Neal, who was CHCO at the Defense Logistics Agency before joining Homeland Security, said DLA was able to improve its HR operations considerably by drawing distinctions between employees responsible for transactions such as hiring and benefits, and those in charge of strategic human capital planning. That structure made transactions more efficient by consolidating them, and freed up the strategy side to focus on long-term projects.

Lovelace said one priority should be updating HR technology and examining processes like hiring to see if they are as efficient as they could be. If agencies can make basic processes simpler and speed them up, HR offices could decrease staff devoted to transactional work and beef up the strategic side, she said.

And the panelists agreed that individual agencies must start improving their human resources processes and workforces without waiting for a governmentwide mandate. The process would be easier and faster if agencies share best practices and if officials don't expect the Office of Personnel Management to do the job for them, panelists agreed.

"We're going to have a champion, or we're not," said Suzy Barker, deputy CHCO at the Labor Department. "I've been part of subcommittees [and], I've been part of councils. I've been providing advice, energy, piloting things. And you just have to make up your mind to do it. This is like the Wizard of Oz to me. We all have the ruby slippers, and if we click three times, we can get home."

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