The Conductors

Chief human capital officers seek to harmonize the skills of disparate employees and smooth discordant personnel policies.

It seems as though Toni Dawsey is always sending someone somewhere. As assistant administrator for human capital management at NASA, she has transferred scientists among the agency's 10 facilities, rotated engineers through human resources offices and sent her staff off to training institutes, all with the ultimate goal of helping a small subset of NASA's workforce travel at least 35 million miles beyond her office, from Earth to Mars.

That distance might be unusually large, but across the federal government, chief human capital officers share the same challenges Dawsey faces in directing the evolution that will help the workforce meet the changing demands placed on agencies.

"You have to fix compensation, but you also have to fix the performance management system, you have to fix your hiring system, you have to fix your labor relations program, you have to fix your managers' competencies," says John Palguta, vice president for Policy at the Partnership for Public Service in Washington, who lobbied for creation of the CHCO position almost five years ago. "CHCOs are basically conductors, and there are a lot of instruments out there, and they're trying to figure out how to get the orchestra to play a symphony when they've got a lot of things changing around them."

It helps that some of the most significant players have demonstrated an increasing willingness to come to the stage and recognize the importance of strategic human capital management to the overall mission of their departments. In a July report from the Partnership and the accounting firm Grant Thornton LLP that surveyed 55 top human resources officials, 93 percent said Cabinet officers see them as trusted business advisers, not simply transaction managers, to at least a moderate extent, and 64 percent said that was true to a great or very great extent.

For some CHCOs, support was never at issue. At the Homeland Security Department, CHCO Marta Brito Pérez says respect for human capital issues was there from the beginning. "I have unequivocal support in this organization," she says. "I work very closely with the leadership of the department, and if I said there's something that we need, it gets done. I can't think of an instance where I would say support was wavering."

Other CHCOs have worked to build structures that support their issues. At NASA, Dawsey won approval of a governance structure that put her office at the top of the workforce planning process in partnership with the Office of Program and Institutional Integration and the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation. "When I first got here, the budget people basically drove workforce planning. . . . It was very short term," Dawsey says. "It's one thing to operate that way when you have a stable workforce and a stable mission." Her new approach is to focus on "what people, what competencies are we going to need two years out, five years out, as far out as we can define the requirements for our future mission."

Jeff T.H. Pon, CHCO at the Energy De-partment, has taken advantage of a step in the budgeting process, called the corporate program review, to advocate for his priorities. During meetings with the chief financial officer, the deputy secretary, agency heads and other leaders, "I get to see what their training budgets are, how much they're spending on people development," he says.

The commitment to HR often goes beyond simple budgeting. James E. Cason, associate deputy secretary and acting CHCO at the Interior Department, says Secretary Dirk Kempthorne stayed for an entire two-day retreat for 300 senior executives that focused on human resources issues, and the secretary repeatedly states his personal commitment to HR strategic planning. At Homeland Security, the chief of staff to Secretary Michael Chertoff and several of his counselors teach a training course called DHS 101, which gives employees an overview of the department's programs and services, Pérez says.

CHCOs governmentwide are working to inculcate in managers a concern for human capital issues; many of them have found that the strategic planning process has helped not only to clarify their goals but to win support from people throughout their departments.

Deborah Jefferson, deputy CHCO and director of the Office of Human Resources Management at the Commerce Department, points to the success of a departmentwide team in producing a five-year workforce restructuring plan and human capital and succession plans. The teams were effective, Jefferson says, in part because they "incorporated comments to ensure completeness of the plan and buy-in from the stakeholders." That teamwork has extended beyond the planning process. The deputy secretary holds quarterly meetings with Commerce's bureau chiefs and runs town hall meetings with senior executives to make performance expectations clear to everyone who plays a role in implementing them.

Kathleen J.H. Wheeler, deputy CHCO at Interior, was surprised by the level of interest in the strategic human capital plan she oversaw. "Often, when I tried to give the report to someone in the field, they'd already read it," she says. "We put it online, and it got 70,000 hits in the first month." Strategic planning highlights the enhanced roles many deputy CHCOs now play in their departments both as institutional memory and as day-to-day operations managers. "Our two offices are about 60 feet apart in the same hallway," says Interior's Cason. "Every time I go to my office, I have to pass Kathleen's office, which usually means a visit and more work." Wheeler echoed his observation. "Jim is really the CEO, and I'm the COO," she says. "I've now served under three CHCOs. Often, the person who's had Jim's responsibility has also had another responsibility on their head. . . . Having the deputies involved has been incredibly helpful in terms of continuity and who serves as a bridge between the CHCO and operations."

Tuning Up

Measuring and managing performance-and compensating workers based on it-top many CHCO to-do lists. A majority of CHCOs surveyed by the Partnership for Public Service favored moving beyond the General Schedule system to some form of pay for performance. But before designing governmentwide or even departmentwide replacements, CHCOs say they have to get their performance measurements right. "What is it that will prove whether we have succeeded and whether we got the return on investment that we were looking for?" asks NASA's Dawsey. "That's also relatively new in government. . . . We're all grappling with explaining our program in terms of return."

At Homeland Security, Pérez is in the thick of developing a performance system. "We're moving really aggressively in that regard," she says. "We trained 15,000 managers. We're now rolling it out to the rest of our employees. We have 48,000 screeners in [the Transportation Security Administration] working under a performance management system. There are thousands of people under new systems that are about articulating expectations, providing feedback to employees and making sure employees know whether [they are] meeting expectations."

Energy's Pon believes that a more flexible system allowing his department to move beyond narrow pay categories would be a vital tool for attracting key talent. "There are about 200 nuclear engineers who graduate each year. There are 2,000 private sector jobs offered to them," he says. Those jobs might pay more than $100,000. "We can offer up to about $48,000. There's a big gap in what we need to pay them to be competitive. All of our compensation systems are out of whack with where the competition is."

Reshaping the human resources workforce and human resources tools also are major goals. "Federal HR staff tend to be fairly conservative and rule-oriented and process- oriented," says Scott Thompson, a director at Grant Thornton who worked with the Partnership on the CHCO survey. "Rather than in the private sector, where an HR office exists to help the manager succeed and everybody realizes that their job is to help the company make money, the emphasis historically in federal HR offices has been 'we're here to make sure everyone abides by the rules.' "

Energy's Pon agrees. "Our backbone is still operations, personnel processing, the transactional nature of the business," he says. There are many questions. For instance, how do managers get an HR specialist who has been doing classification to do a workforce budget or plan for mission changes? One approach has been to get better information about employees' abilities. At DHS, Pérez identified 115 jobs and more than 350 competencies needed to do them. She hopes to imitate a State Department database of employees' skills, even ones they don't use in their everyday jobs. "For example, I don't use Spanish here, but I would have it in the databank," Pérez says, adding that State's inventory of employee skills already has proved its worth. "When the [December 2004 Indian Ocean] tsunami hit, they were able to identify lots of folks who could work [in recovery efforts]."

NASA's Dawsey used a similarly broad look at employees' skills to transfer projects among the agency's 10 research centers to provide assignments for underemployed workers and to hold job fairs so employees could apply for transfers to centers working on projects that interested them.

Tracking skills also means departments can move to retain competencies they would otherwise lose as large numbers of workers retire. Commerce uses a three-tiered leadership training system to make sure it will be able to replace senior executives who retire as well as the mid-level executives and rank-and-file workers who are promoted to take their places.

"These programs are in their third generation and have proved to be effective tools for building leadership competencies and leadership succession bench strength," says Jefferson. "The applicant numbers have consistently increased over each cycle." A similar program boosted the number of internal applicants for senior positions at the Fish and Wildlife Service, according to Interior's Wheeler.

Setting the Stage

When department-based programs aren't enough, CHCOs leverage the Chief Human Capital Officers Council and its resources to advocate for governmentwide policy changes. DHS' Pérez credits the council with pushing for a bill that would allow agencies to rehire retirees on a part-time basis without reducing their salaries by the amount of their pensions. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced the measure in early August.

The council is not a cure-all. "I would characterize it as being an adolescent. They think they know what they can do, but they're figuring out where the boundaries are," says Pon. "We often have to reinvent the wheel, but what we're doing at the council is really taking a look across government . . . to learn from our mistakes and leverage the best practices."

CHCOs also use the council to further define their roles. Though most have communicated to agency leaders, managers and employees the need to focus on human capital, they still struggle with explaining the enormity of the task before them. "Human capital management is not [just] about HR," says Pérez. "It's about leadership and the management of an organization owning the issues of the workforce."

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