Willis Bretz

Raising Human Capital

Beware the manager who says people are his most important resource, and other words of wisdom from a federal personnel expert.

Few people have as much experience in federal personnel matters as Jeffrey Neal. During a civil service career spanning 33 years, 13 of them in the Senior Executive Service, Neal served as chief human capital officer at both the Defense Logistics Agency and the Homeland Security Department. Government Executive Deputy Editor Katherine McIntire Peters recently sat down with Neal at his office in Fairfax, Va., where he is senior vice president at ICF International, to discuss problems in federal hiring.  

So many of government’s challenges seem to stem from an ineffective personnel system. 

It’s a problem for agencies and for the public. If you are interested in getting a federal job, trying to figure out how to get into that particular castle is very difficult. The hiring process isn’t particularly transparent. People sometimes have difficulty navigating to figure out where the jobs are and then they get vacancy announcements that are filled with jargon. You’ll get a job announcement that’s eight pages long. What you end up with is a process designed to see how desperately you want to be a federal employee. A lot of very talented people just give up. 

You’ve held the top personnel positions at the Defense Logistics Agency and Homeland Security. Which was the bigger challenge?

DHS, for a variety of reasons. One is just the scale. DHS has over 190,000 civilian employees, where DLA has about 24,000. DHS is a relatively young department—it’s only 11 years old, and it acts like an 11-year-old. The components don’t work as well together as one might expect them to, and that created problems. 

I read on your blog that DHS has 400 HR systems. That’s mind-boggling.

Some of them were very large systems, like the personnel system where all the records are kept, and then some were very small systems, where somebody in an HR office put together an access database. So you have this large number of systems—both large and small—most of which don’t talk to one another. 

At DLA you consolidated operations, correct?

We consolidated seven operating HR offices into one HR center that had two locations. We cut the cost of the operation by 28 percent and we cut our time to fill jobs from an average of 111 days to 62 days. We did that in one year. 

What was the impetus for that?

There were a variety of problems. One, HR service was abysmal. Managers throughout the agency thought HR was horrible; employees thought HR was horrible; people in HR thought HR was horrible. It took forever to fill a job. You couldn’t get a straight answer to benefits questions. It was just a mess. At the same time, customers—primarily the military services—were pressuring DLA to cut its costs. We found a way to eliminate duplication and get control of the operation in a way that got us onto one version of every system we needed. What we ended up with was a much less expensive, much more efficient operation. The costs went down and the quality of service went up.  

You eliminated a lot of senior positions. How tough was that?

For me, it wasn’t that difficult. For them, it didn’t go over so well. One of the problems you have with redundant organizations is you have redundant management structures. Instead of having one or two management structures, you had seven. We were able to eliminate a number of personnel officer positions and division chief type positions. Those jobs can be very expensive. Half a dozen GS-15s will cost you over $1 million a year, so it adds up fairly quickly. 

Senior leaders like to say ‘our people are our greatest resource.’ Can that really be true?

Normally, when people say “people are our most important resource,” they’re lying. If you watch the reaction of a group of 500 people when the leader stands up and says “people are our most important resource” you can see the ceiling levitate where all the eyes collectively roll at the same time, because they all think that’s crap. When it comes time to cut the budget, what do they cut? They always cut training. What are they doing? They’re cutting investment in their most important resource. 

The Office of Personnel Management really got dinged in our reader survey. Is OPM relevant?

Yes. OPM is the chief policy writer and regulation writer for HR matters. That’s an incredible amount of responsibility. OPM is the primary overseer and enforcer of those regulations. OPM has a massive role in the security clearance process and the investigation process. That makes them relevant. OPM runs one of the largest, and frankly one of the best, employee health insurance programs in the country. 

What OPM doesn’t do sometimes is look at their contribution to the problems. For example, if you look at the entire hiring process, what is law? Not very much. What most people have to deal with is included in OPM regulations. OPM could change that. The entire performance appraisal system—there’s a very small amount of the law that actually covers the performance rating process. OPM could completely rewrite those regulations if they wanted—totally change how performance management is done in federal agencies. OPM has the ability to be more relevant. But they’re better than they get credit for. 

Why does the hiring process take so long?

A lot of the problems with the hiring process are self-inflicted. There are also a lot of people involved in operating HR offices, running these hiring processes, who really don’t truly understand them. We’ve moved to automated tools for hiring over the years. Those tools were designed to relieve a burden from HR people. But what they’ve done in some offices is use them as a substitute for human judgment. They don’t use the tools wisely, they don’t organize the work wisely. 

One of the biggest barriers to getting jobs filled is hiring managers. They’ll get a list and then they’ll sit on it for a month or two. 

In our survey many people said favoritism is a factor in hiring.

There’s a concept called pre-selection where people say the hiring manager knows he wants to promote Betty Lou and that’s illegal. It’s not illegal. OPM has a process called a name request. If I’m having OPM do the hiring for me, I can give them a document that says I want to fill this job, and if Betty Lou is within reach, I’d like to have her on my list. It’s perfectly legitimate. What’s not legitimate is cooking the process—saying because Betty Lou has a degree in some obscure field, the job candidate needs a degree in that field. 

I had somebody ask me once if I had favorites. I said, yes—the people who work hard, are creative, who work well with others and delight their customers. Those are my favorites. 

Does veterans’ preference prevent the best candidates from getting jobs? 

We have a process that’s designed to find highly qualified people, and then we add to that process a preference for veterans. Where it can get you somebody who’s less qualified is when you’ve got somebody who has a compensable disability and they go to the top of the list regardless of their score, if they’re qualified. That’s where it can get you somebody who’s less qualified. We have made, as a nation, a decision that we value people willing to put their lives on the line for the country. So when someone signs up to do that and they come out with a disability as a result, we’ve decided as a country that that’s worth something. Hiring a qualified person who might be a compensably disabled veteran over a more qualified person who may not be a veteran at all is a public policy decision. Most people who don’t want to go get shot at themselves back that decision until they apply for a job.