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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

It’s Premature to Break Up OPM


The proposal to break up the Office of Personnel Management is getting the proverbial cart before the horse. It makes no sense to initiate a major reorganization before deciding why that’s necessary or before defining what the new organization is expected to achieve.

A key step would be to develop plans for reform but to my knowledge, aside from OPM Director Jeff Pon’s statement about a “full court press,” no one has outlined what changes are planned. Until then, it’s not possible to define the organization and staff needed to provide necessary services.

In the private sector, the redefinition of the human resources role started two decades ago—and all the changes effectively elevate and expand HR’s role. The 1997 book by Dave Ulrich, Human Resource Champions, made one of the earliest arguments for changing HR’s role. A number of subsequent books by Ulrich and others made similar arguments. More recently, articles advocating the importance of the new HR were published in Harvard Business Review. The title of one, “People Before Strategy: A New Role for the CHRO,” drives the theme home. The significance of these works is that the authors are prominent consultants to corporate leaders, not HR specialists.

But in government the broadly shared consensus is hardly supportive. In 2017, I wrote a column for Government Executive arguing that government needs to redefine HR’s role. Readers clearly did not share my view, however, judging by some of the caustic comments posted at its end:

“We have HR?  Really? Who Knew!”

“So true -- we removed a huge number of them since that is just 'admin stuff', and relegated them to mostly pushing HR paperwork.”

“The dirty little secret in government is there is no such thing as HR as found in the private sector. HR in government is a trough in which a bunch of bureaucrats, moving at glacial speed, feed.”

“HR is the perfect place to count days until retirement, just so long as you hold your tongue and leave common sense at the door when you come to work.”

“HR is a punchline in my agency.”

The unfortunate reality is that too often HR is a punchline. Not too long ago that was true in the private sector as well. The cover of an issue of the magazine Fast Company in 2012 featured the article, “Why We Hate HR,” with a cartoon figure on the cover that has been shown frequently with articles critical of HR.

But that image is changing dramatically, as evidenced by the books and articles in business journals.  

Reform is Again Needed

When the civil service laws were enacted a century ago, they made government a better place to work. But those laws are now barriers to effective workforce management. States and local governments have initiated reform over the past two decades but the impact has not been adequately studied. Comparative studies are needed to determine if agencies are now operating at higher levels of performance. This presumes the goal of reform is to improve government performance.

Analyses comparing the performance of the best places to work confirms that new approaches to managing employees have produced performance gains, while making those organizations more attractive as employers.

For those concerned that reform will somehow vitiate the employment protections for federal employees, it’s important to remember that private sector employers also operate under laws written to protect employee rights and prevent bias and abuse. While the laws limit employers' freedom to act, they have not kept companies from introducing new and radically different work-management practices that have produced significant improvements in employee performance and productivity. It’s safe to say those laws have not impeded the revolution in work management or delimited the role of HR.

Significantly, the authors of the Harvard Business Review article mentioned earlier addressed a key issue—the reporting relationship of the top HR executive to senior executives:

“It’s time for HR to make the same leap that the finance function has made in recent decades and become a true partner of the CEO. Just as the CFO helps the CEO lead the business by raising and allocating financial resources, the CHRO should help the CEO by building and assigning talent, especially the key people, and by unleashing the organization’s energy. Managing human capital must be accorded the same priority managing financial capital came to have the in the 1980s . . .”  

That suggests a very different role than in federal HR offices. If government really wants to raise performance levels, agencies will need to make people management a priority, and that will take leadership.

Proposed Statement of HR’s Purpose

Agencies should start by defining the purpose of HR in workforce management. They might look to Dave Ulrich’s recent post “Living Up To Our Potential: How to Make Progress in HR” for inspiration:

“HR professionals support all employees by navigating a tenuous paradox: encourage individual employee well-being by creating a healthy work environment and a competitive organization able to win in the marketplace. Without winning in the marketplace, organizations fail, thus rendering moot the need for a healthy working environment.”

“HR professionals gain respect and help their organizations win in competitive marketplaces by ensuring the right talent, leadership, and culture. When HR helps firms win in the marketplace, they help insure stable jobs, sustaining this valuable benefit to all employees.”

“HR professionals also should help individual employees have a healthy workplace where the employees experience a sense of belief in the company purpose, a place to belong as a community, and an environment where they are safe and can become better individuals.”  

That may sound idealistic but every employee would undoubtedly want to work and work hard where that describes their organization. His reference to “winning” may not be the right word for government but it could be replaced with “satisfying the public’s needs.” The descriptions of the highest-ranked best places to work portray organizations that match Ulrich’s statement.

Before government’s new HR function can be planned, reform needs to be much further along. At this stage, two steps would be useful: 1) Inviting feedback from OPM’s customers and 2) initiating a study of the latest thinking among the larger best places to work. There is no inherent reason government cannot be a model employer.

Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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