Congress urged to give agencies more personnel flexibilities

Agencies can do a better job attracting and retaining a high quality workforce if their personnel offices are granted more flexibility, according to a new General Accounting Office report.

"Federal agencies are experiencing pervasive human capital challenges in acquiring and developing staffs to meet current and emerging agency needs," the report (GAO-03-2) said. "These types of challenges are likely to go unresolved if agencies do not take steps to ensure that they have sufficient numbers of people in place with the right skills, tools and incentives to get the job done right."

Based on interviews with human resources officers at 24 major agencies and with representatives of federal employee unions, GAO determined that some agencies are already using effective programs to improve employees' work lives. Such programs include alternative work schedules, child care assistance, transit subsidies, recruitment bonuses and retention allowances.

Benefits like child care assistance help boost employee morale and can increase productivity because more reliable child care usually translates to fewer absences from work, the report said. GAO concluded that flexible work schedules increase productivity as well, because employees can manage their own time to make sure they complete all of their responsibilities.

Agencies have also benefited from alternative hiring practices, including programs to hire students for temporary jobs, the report said. These programs work well because they help determine if the student would be the right person to fill a permanent position later. The federal outstanding scholar program allows agencies to speed up the normal hiring process to lure exceptionally skilled college graduates quickly, GAO also noted.

The report recommended that Congress grant agencies additional flexibilities to restructure their workforces, revamp pay systems, streamline their hiring processes, deal with poor-performing employees and create more temporary positions.

Union officials agreed that more flexible human resources strategies would be beneficial at times, but said that managers might misuse them.

"Because human capital flexibilities entail greater decentralization and delegation of human capital authorities and fewer rules, the protection of employees' rights under these conditions can be challenging," the report said.

But most union officials and agency representatives GAO interviewed between May 2001 and May 2002 agreed that if managers implement the new flexibilities properly, they will not violate employee rights.

Agencies need to make sure that human resources flexibilities are clearly linked to strategic plans, the report said. Agencies should also make sure that employees have a say in designing more flexible policies. For example, the U.S. Mint allowed employees at a San Francisco plant to vote on options for implementing an alternative work schedule.

In addition, agencies should devote attention to streamlining the administrative process for using flexibilities, the report recommended. The General Services Administration did this by allowing supervisors to apply to give employees on-the-spot cash awards over the agency's intranet instead of filling out lengthy forms justifying the awards and sending the forms to the agency's personnel office for review.

Agency officials agreed with the report. The Office of Personnel Management commented that Congress should authorize greater flexibilities at agencies across the board, or some agencies would have an "unfair competitive advantage" for hiring and retaining the best workers.

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