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The Front Line

President George W. Bush is pushing for epochal changes in the civil service. The job of pushing the reforms out into agencies, often over objections by unions, employees, legislators and managers, will fall to government's human resources leaders, its chief human capital officers.

In his 2006 budget proposal, Bush proposed to extend governmentwide reforms similar to those now under way at the Defense and Homeland Security departments. Bush administration officials say the new rules-which replace the decades-old General Schedule with pay for performance, restrict union bargaining and establish stricter discipline-are necessary to attract top performers. In January, Homeland Security released the details of its new system. Defense followed in February, and the president expects that other agencies will be able to move quickly, perhaps as soon as later this year.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge delegated authority to their chief human capital officers, David S.C. Chu at Defense and Ronald James at DHS, for developing new systems.

Bush's plan to go governmentwide puts the other CHCOs on the hot seat as well. Some are concerned that the Defense and DHS rules could be ill-suited to their workforces. For example, Vincent Taylor, the chief human capital officer at the Transportation Department, worries that limits on union bargaining won't fly with employees at the heavily unionized Federal Aviation Administration. Defense and Homeland Security leaders say they no longer can bargain over work assignments, technology or deployments because of their national security missions. Taylor can't make that argument with FAA unions. So he wants a seat at the table as Defense and Homeland Security implement their systems.

To win over wary employees, human capital officers will have to learn from the experiences of Chu and James. Collaboration with unions will be required, and human capital officers can expect recrimination from labor leaders who believe personnel reform is a means to cut pay. If unions aren't happy, Democrats in Congress won't be either. And some Republicans are skittish as well. So CHCOs will have to be diplomats on Capitol Hill.

They'll also have to convince the Government Accountability Office that they'll provide training for managers, who in addition to running programs will be asked to comb through résumés, track performance, train future leaders and discipline poor performers. GAO also will demand credible systems for evaluating employees and setting pay raises.

James, who has led the reform effort at DHS, says his colleagues should take heart in the rightness of their charge and be compassionate to worried workers. "This is clearly the right way to go," he says. "The current system is outdated. But when you talk about impacting people's lives, jobs, pay . . . you have to understand that's scary. Change requires a lot of communication. Extraordinary communication. Constant, ongoing communication."

Progress and Procrastination

For the past two years, since the posts were created in the 2002 Homeland Security Act, the CHCOs have focused on getting their footing and establishing a council and subcommittees to solve intractable HR problems: endless hiring processes, weak disciplinary systems, and inconsistent training and leadership development.

Initially, it was expected that the officers would spend most of their time focused on the retirement wave that agencies have been anticipating. An aging workforce combined with a hiring drought in the 1990s sparked concerns that top civil servants would retire without replacements. But the typical HR director, charged with overseeing thousands of personnel transactions annually, had neither the time nor the clout to push workforce planning to the top of an agency's agenda. The hope was that if each department had a chief human capital officer-who had the ear of the agency's leader-then long-term problems would get the attention they deserved.

For many CHCOs-even for Chu and James-progress has come with difficulties. The new systems at Defense and Homeland Security have proved so controversial that even congressional Republicans are expressing reservations about taking the changes governmentwide. And while some agencies-the Energy and Labor departments, the Social Security Administration and NASA, for example-can point to positive changes, at most agencies, sluggish progress has sparked frustration.

Agency leaders have complained to Congress that outdated hiring systems prevented them from bringing on top talent. Managers groused that their choice was constrained by the "rule of three," under which HR officials forwarded the top three applicants for managers to consider. Federal employers also were irked that companies could hire more quickly and offer inducements such as student loan repayment, extra vacation or signing bonuses.

Between 2000 and 2002, Congress sought to quell these concerns, passing legislation allowing federal managers to consider a broader range of candidates, suspend some procedures when qualified job applicants are scarce, and offer hiring bonuses and repay student loans. Loan repayment offers are up, but last year, GAO found that most human capital officers weren't using the other flexibilities. Several CHCOs blamed the Office of Personnel Management, saying they had not received guidance on using the tools.

The Chief Human Capital Officers Council has made halting progress. More than a year ago, council members were assigned to subcommittees on hiring, performance management, emergency preparedness, employee conduct and poor performance, and leadership development and succession planning. None has yet released a report. An executive summary of the leadership development subcommittee's report provided to Government Executive shows that it has made-and OPM has accepted-recommendations to set up a rotation program for senior executives among different agencies, create teams of public and private sector experts to help plan for future workforce needs, and work with the Office of Management and Budget to provide designated training funds.

Michael Dovilla of OPM, the CHCO Council's executive director, said the group has served as a sounding board for OPM policies and as a facilitator for collecting workforce information. It assisted OPM in collecting questionnaires for the 2004 Federal Human Capital Survey, a study of workplace attitudes. It has helped gather data for emergency preparedness surveys, and has spread the word about OPM policies on background investigations and security clearances. When OPM was drafting regulations for the Senior Executive Service pay-for-performance rules put in place last December, the council provided input. CHCOs also helped OPM weed out job candidates who faked college degrees.

Dovilla, who helped draft the CHCO legislation as an aide to Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, says CHCOs share best practices. "There are pockets of excellence around government," Dovilla says, "but the problem is those good ideas haven't been shared enough. The purpose of the council was to provide that venue." For example, council meetings provided a forum for Justice CHCO Joanne Simms to explain how her department trained managers to deal with poor performers and employee misconduct. The training boosted from 70 percent to 80 percent Justice's win rate before the Merit Systems Protection Board, the agency that adjudicates employee appeals of disciplinary actions.

Still, it's fair to say that the council could be even more productive. Asked before her departure from OPM last year whether the council's efforts had contributed to improved workforce planning, OPM Director Kay Coles James smiled wryly. "There is a lot more exciting work to be done," she said.

Daunting Agendas

For some CHCOs, human resources is only a small part of a much broader portfolio. That worried OPM Director James. "Some of our chief human capital officers are stretched far too thin," she told the House Government Reform Civil Service Subcommittee in 2004. But others disagree. William Leidinger, a well-regarded CHCO, also is the Education Department's assistant secretary for management and its chief information officer. He oversees the department's human resources, management services, facilities and information technology. Leidinger says his arrangement makes sense because he's in charge of agency support services and can advocate for them with the department secretary, to whom he reports. "We've set it up this way for good and sufficient business reasons," he says.

But many CHCOs don't have that kind of access. Nine do not report to their agency's leader, according to GAO. Like Leidinger, half are political appointees, and almost all have substantial responsibilities outside human resources, according to a GAO survey. Four of the 12 career executives who serve as CHCOs also have considerable outside duties.

The creation of chief human capital officer posts was supposed to accompany a transition in human resources offices across government from a workforce of paper-pushers to one of strategic consultants. Automation has enabled agencies to process human resources transactions more efficiently. As a result, from 1994 to 2004, the number of human resources specialists in government declined 20 percent, from 50,000 to about 40,000. But the responsibility for strategizing doesn't come easily for all CHCOs; some have little previous experience in human resources. Hence, they have relied on the CHCO Academy, an OPM creation, to provide primers on topics such as contracting out, presidential transitions and hiring flexibilities.

Even so, when compared with the chief financial officers and chief information officers-congressionally mandated chiefs who've been around longer-CHCOs have gotten up and running more quickly. At a House Civil Service Subcommittee hearing last year, GAO Managing Director for Strategic Issues Christopher Mihm praised the group for establishing their council within a year. By contrast, he told the subcommittee, "Five years after the enactment of the law creating the CFO position, we found that some agencies had yet to fill the position."

Silver Bullets

The CHCOs have prompted improvements-some dramatic-in their own agency human resources planning and processes. For the first time, seven agencies reached "green" on the president's management score card in 2004. They did so by putting in place mechanisms for evaluating employee skills and predicting staffing needs, allowing them to begin reshaping their workforces. They've offered buyouts to employees whose skills no longer are in demand and recruited and hired others to fill the leadership pipeline.

New governmentwide rules requiring performance pay for senior executives have prompted some hard thinking about the need to improve evaluations and the skills of the people doing them. Last year, all but three Cabinet departments-Defense, Education and Homeland Security-satisfied OPM that they had plans for carrying out the new requirements. The General Services Administration was one of only two agencies in 2004 to win full certification for its performance management system. (Thirty-two other agencies received provisional certifications that must be renewed annually.) But GSA's CHCO, Gail T. Lovelace, warns her colleagues that the system is only the first step. "You can design the most beautiful system, but if you haven't helped managers and employees know how to work and operate within that system, it's useless," she says.

At the Labor Department, the first Cabinet agency to get to green, CHCO Patrick Pizzella led an effort to consolidate a "hodgepodge" of performance management systems into one. "It really is the cornerstone of our ability internally to link performance and results," he says. Labor also was the first Cabinet department to win approval for its senior executive performance management system.

The Social Security Administration also was early to go green. CHCO Reginald Wells cites SSA's effort to use automation to track its coming retirement wave. "We have a pretty good fix on our mission-critical positions and how many folks we can expect to lose," he says. To fill the gaps, the agency has focused on training, from the lowest levels to the top. SSA can't afford not to train entry-level employees because they deal with the public on a regular basis, Wells explains. For Senior Executive Service candidates, the agency sticks to the original SES creed, developing well-rounded leaders. All SES candidates are required to hold a variety of agency positions and spend time at other federal agencies.

Some CHCOs have pushed far-reaching reforms in their council subcommittees. Energy's Claudia Cross, who served on the CHCO Council leadership development subcommittee, pushed OPM to work with OMB to provide funding designated for training. That will be a tough sell with OMB and agency budget officers, but Cross says, "Knowing how to become more efficient in managing people is an art form that has to be a lot more wisely owned throughout our management ranks." The combination of budget-induced hiring restraints and retirements is leading to the loss of important HR skills, Cross points out. And as government moves to contract out more work, the challenge of leading a blended workforce of civil servants and private sector employees is "just getting dumped on managers," she adds. And with the coming reforms, managers will have more responsibility for evaluating performance, and the consequences will be greater. She sees the "silver bullet" solution as leadership development and training.

In other corners of the government, the challenges can seem mind-boggling. GAO's Mihm bluntly told Congress last year that poor workforce planning at the Defense Department jeopardizes its new personnel system. Defense does "not know what competencies their staff need to do their work now and in the future, and what type of recruitment, retention, and training and professional development . . . should be developed and implemented to meet future organizational goals," he said.

Chu, charged with turning around Defense's civilian workforce management systems, doesn't deny that improvements are needed. But, he says, "If we agree there is a problem, it seems to me we ought to be proceeding forthrightly to its solution." That solution, in his view, is Defense's new National Security Personnel System. Following his lead this year, CHCOs will begin proceeding forthrightly to pave the way for a human resources revolution the likes of which hasn't been seen in a quarter-century.