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HR Needs to Prepare for a New Role


In their recent piece “HR Directors Get a Personnel Downgrade,” Governing columnists Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene raised a pervasive challenge across all levels of government. “There have always been a number of states in which the HR function has moved from a separate agency to a division in a larger one,” the authors said. “That’s been the case in at least four states in recent years: Georgia, Nevada, Oklahoma and Washington. Among states that have formal Cabinets, fewer than half include their HR directors at that table.”

The authors also highlighted a rare human resources success story: “This negative phenomenon may be common, but of course it’s not universal. In North Carolina, the role of HR is held in high regard by Gov. Pat McCrory. That shouldn’t be much of a surprise as the governor’s background included several years in the HR department of Duke Energy.”

McCrory’s story includes 14 successful years as mayor of Charlotte. During his tenure, the city was acknowledged to be a model for big city government. His HR department was recognized for its leading edge practices. At an ICMA conference where I served on a panel with Charlotte’s HR chief, the organizers had to double the size of the room to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend. Even then there were people listening from outside in the hallway.

It is clear public employers at all levels need to find ways to do more with less; that is to say, find ways to improve performance. Technology and management systems have proved useful tools, but they have come up short. If government organizations are to meet this challenge, the answer is to champion improved workforce performance. That is the strategy that McCrory relied on as mayor.

The Emerging HR Role

The creation of high-performance organizations has been the subject of many books and articles, but authors have been writing about a revolution in the way work is organized and managed in companies, not government. Google is a prominent success story, discussed in the book Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock, the tech giant’s HR chief. Bock’s high-profile status is similar to that of top HR executives in other companies. The role is being upgraded. HR leaders are now paid only slightly less than chief financial officers.

The crux of the problem is that HR offices are staffed for compliance, administration and record keeping. That’s true in all sectors, but civil service systems make it worse in government. Today the most successful corporate HR executives are skilled at leading and managing change. That role requires skills that HR specialists have not had to develop in the past. The dilemma prompted Ram Charan, a prominent consultant, to argue in a Harvard Business Review article that it’s time to split HR into separate administration and organizational roles

The article triggered an ongoing debate. HR experts like David Ulrich contend it will not solve the problem. They acknowledge HR needs to change, but that simply splitting the function is not the answer.

The problem, however, is broader than the HR function, since it’s not limited to HR policies, practices and systems. Improving workforce performance requires changes in the way employees are managed. That means executives and managers have to make it a priority and be sufficiently flexible to champion a new management philosophy. As the many books document, companies are changing rapidly.

The Problem Is More Difficult in Government

The problem at the federal level is no doubt the most difficult to address. The Office of Personnel Management does not have the power to mandate successful change under any circumstances. But the size of the larger departments and agencies, which have multiple field operations, makes change initiatives at the local level dependent on the change management skills of people in the field.

There are other barriers more or less unique to government—civil service rules, bureaucracy, a lack of trust, the absence of agreement on goals, union interests, the aging workforce—and the list goes on.

While the scale is smaller, the problems are similar for state and local government. Government is best understood as a conglomerate. At each level, government is a bunch of very different entities with different missions, cultures, dominant occupations and histories. There are few companies like the Justice Department, for example, with such diverse organizations as the FBI, Bureau of Prisons and Antitrust Division. State and local governments similarly comprise diverse organizations.

That makes the problem of improving performance different in each agency. Blanket policy changes will not be successful. Moreover, change management strategies will depend on local leadership and reflect local circumstances.

That reality raises serious questions about the future role of HR specialists. HR’s administrative role is rapidly disappearing. Virtually all of the traditional HR duties can be outsourced. The dilemma is that the needed changes will not happen in the absence of leadership and change management guidance.

The new role leading major change initiatives with the goal of improving performance is a radical redefinition of the HR function. There is a wealth of research that confirms the changes in management practices associated with better performance. The list of issues that should be addressed in developing a performance improvement strategy is long. Redefining the role and requisite training of managers are key.

Elected officials are also key. They should demonstrate a philosophy similar to that of Gov. McCrory. They should periodically make it clear that they value the workforce and their efforts and support policies and practices that demonstrate their commitment. Unfortunately that has not been true in many jurisdictions. HR needs to start preparing for the future.

Howard Risher managed compensation consulting practices for two national firms and has written four books, including Aligning Pay and Results. He has an MBA and Ph.D. from the Wharton School.

(Image via i3alda/

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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