Facing the Music

The government’s maestros of personnel must manage a series of high-profile challenges.

The government's maestros of personnel must manage a series of high-profile challenges.

In early May, President Obama released a long-anticipated hiring reform memorandum, replacing a requirement that federal job applicants respond to essay questions with a resume-based approach more in line with private sector practices. The memo also outlined new responsibilities for managers and supervisors, requiring them to get more involved in the hiring process.

The job of making sure the hiring reform effort and the Obama administration's other personnel priorities are implemented falls to the government's chief human capital officers.

"This is going to be proving time for the [Chief Human Capital Officers Council], for the CHCOs and for the Office of Personnel Management," says Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. "They're going to be asked to change a broken system. That's a big demand, and how they respond to it is going to define their legacy."

But it's also a time of great opportunity. A new director of the CHCO Council hopes to galvanize its members to help address each other's problems. Experienced CHCOs have found new allies in their quest to shine a light on the needs of the human resources workforce. And new chiefs have found that with a little determination, they can get the resources they need, and by applying them right, can get more done than anyone thought possible. CHCOs are coming of age as a community at the precise moment their interests are converging with those of a young administration that's willing to back up some of its ambitions with resources.

Leveraging Resources

The tenure of Jeff Neal, chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department, illustrates both the challenges and the opportunities the chiefs face. Just 10 months into his stint at DHS, Neal became the fourth longest-serving of the five people who have held his position at the relatively new department. "My goal is to be the longest-serving before I leave the department," he says. "I do believe some stability in this position is important."

It's particularly important in a department as large, young and with as many diverse challenges as DHS. But the scale of those challenges-DHS is 10 times larger than the agency where Neal was previously CHCO, the 23,000-employee Defense Logistics Agency-is giving him the opportunity to implement his ideas on a broader scale and to create programs that could be models governmentwide.

Along the way, Neal has questioned the conventional wisdom about, for example, the process by which agencies and departments are assigned their allotments of senior executives. Those numbers are assigned in a biennial review process, during which, Neal says, agencies tend to overstate how many executives they need with the expectation they'll reach a compromise with OPM and the Office of Management and Budget to get as many as they actually require. In keeping with that tradition, DHS had submitted a request for several hundred senior executive positions.

Neal says he went to OPM Director John Berry and told him, "This is a ridiculous request. We don't need that many."

Instead he asked for about 100 executives, and Berry got him 90. Berry himself cites that conversation, and the weeklong turnaround time on Neal's request, as evidence that his agency is doing business differently in the Obama administration.

With his allotment of executives in place, Neal has the capacity to pursue two of his biggest goals: reducing DHS' reliance on contractors, and expanding its focus on leadership training and education-a hallmark of his stint at DLA.

"There was a tendency to want to rely on the private sector," Neal says of the previous administration's approach to DHS. "You combined that with the needs of an organization that's just standing up [and] that overreliance on contractors is now part of the culture. Even a seven-year-old organization can develop a culture very quickly."

To tackle the problem, Neal assigned a senior executive to head up a team of a half-dozen people to examine the DHS workforce. That team has been ordered to determine just what DHS' needs are, and then figure out whether contractors really are necessary to do those jobs.

To better prepare DHS employees to handle the work contractors have done, Neal tapped another executive to lead one of his pet initiatives, leadership development. Too often, he says, agencies promote talented employees to key positions, ignore them and then blame them when they fail. In these and other areas, Neal says it's important to develop solutions that can work on an enterprise level, rather than investing in multiple modules containing essentially the same lessons.

He says his experience shows agencies can leverage significant change using their existing resources. "None of these are things that require massive organizations to do," he says. "It's not like we're sending a man to the moon. We're doing some things that are fairly basic that government just doesn't tend to do well."

Innovation and Automation

Some CHCOs entered the transition to the Obama administration and its priorities already firmly ensconced in their agencies. They're using the opportunity not to adjust to new surroundings, but to pursue new challenges. Among these is General Services Administration CHCO Gail Lovelace, who says she "couldn't be in a better place."

In part that's because the new administration is providing an opportunity for Lovelace to shine attention on one of the issues most important to her, the state of the human resources workforce.

"We are asking the federal HR community to step up, embrace these changes and make them happen, but I don't know that we've helped our workforce get ready to make those changes," Lovelace says. "We've lost a high number of really talented people over the last few years. While we're making changes, they're trying to meet the mission."

Lovelace calls Berry the "best cheerleader we possibly could have out there," but stresses the importance of substantive, communitywide efforts to address the projected increase in federal retirements and its particular impact on the senior ranks of human resources professionals. The CHCO Council has become a nexus of those efforts, Lovelace says, as the chiefs try to implement major new human capital initiatives while also figuring out how to "change the tires" by recruiting and training a new generation of experts in the field.

One way to ease the transition, she says, is to automate basic HR tasks, such as processing pay and benefits, so they'll take up less time and energy. That would free human resources specialists to focus on strategic issues and to deal promptly with unique cases that don't fit standardized models.

Lovelace praises Berry's approach to automating the federal retirement process, saying it's more important to build a system that will work for most retirements, rather than getting bogged down in trying to deal with every single exception to standard procedures.

GSA's headquarters are near those of OPM in downtown Washington, so Lovelace has been Berry's collaborator on efforts to create a model work-life balance program that also includes the Interior Department and the Federal Reserve Board. The effort has seen the agencies work together on events such as Earth Day celebrations and fitness walks. They're also sharing resources and facilities. Early this year, OPM opened a renovated health clinic that's available to the other agencies. And Lovelace says the impending renovation of GSA's headquarters, funded through economic recovery legislation, also will allow her agency to make investments in wellness facilities it will share with other federal workers.

Lovelace says the biggest hurdles she and her fellow HR chiefs need to overcome involve resources and coordination, not motivation.

"Our challenge isn't the challenge of being excited, or ready for this change," she says. "We are there."

Working Together

The person tasked with facilitating coordination among the personnel chiefs is Kathryn M. Medina, executive director of the CHCO Council. Medina has made it her mission to clarify the council's role and to "move from being thought leaders to being action leaders."

She began her tenure at the council by creating an e-mail bulletin to keep the chiefs up to date. That publication will go on the council's revamped website when it launches. She's working on a new organizational plan, and in April hosted a full meeting of the council at GSA's Interagency Resources Management Conference, where the chiefs debated what the organization's goals should be.

Medina has been thinking about how best to support the CHCOs, some of whom, she says, are "wearing many, many hats," balancing roles as information or finance experts with the job of managing human resources. Medina wants to make sure those who have multiple areas of responsibility are staying up to speed. She and Lovelace say the CHCOs' deputies, who now attend the full council meetings, have been instrumental in meeting that goal. And Medina wants to build connections with the councils for other C-level officials.

As she gets a handle on her job, Medina has found an immediate way for the CHCOs to have an impact, consulting them on the components of the administration's hiring reform package, and working with them on OPM's efforts on diversity policy. She, Lovelace and Neal share the goal of creating governmentwide training modules and curriculums to reinvigorate the HR workforce.

The Partnership's Stier says given the administration is focusing on issues like hiring reform, it's particularly important that the chiefs pay attention to their staffs' capabilities. "If you move to a résumé-based selection process, change itself requires new energy from the workforce, but in that instance, it's going to require more effort from the HR staff and the agency staff, and less from the talent pool," he says.

Medina says despite the workload the Obama administration is asking human resources officials to take on, she is confident the chiefs and the community they lead will be able to handle the new responsibilities. "When you're doing something you love," she says, "you find a way to do it."

Jeff Neal, Homeland Security

Jeff Neal knows from long experience how complicated federal human resources issues can be. A career senior executive, he jokes he "burrowed out" to a political appointment, serving as chief human capital officer at the Defense Logistics Agency before coming to his current post. Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, says Neal is on a short list of "some real stars . . . a very, very talented individual and really a great pick for DHS."

At DHS, Neal faces the challenge of creating a coherent community out of a department cobbled together like Frankenstein's monster from different organizations-and a wholly new one, the Transportation Security Administration, which he says was invented by "a handful of people who were stuck in a conference room and told to build an agency."

Among the issues Neal is attacking head on are what he says is an over- reliance on contractors and the need for a deep, comprehensive leadership development program. One of his first moves as CHCO was to expand the department's Senior Executive Service corps and to tap talented executives to work on broader issues.

Neal isn't concerned only with his own department. He has been part of conversations with the Office of Personnel Management about how to revitalize the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, and he gave the agency feedback on its hiring reform proposal. "That's very nice to see, that OPM is not developing solutions and lobbing them over the transom to people," he says.

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley says Neal has won her respect by opening his door not only to her, but also to the rank-and-file Transportation Security Administration employees and Customs and Border Protection officers her union represents. Those meetings might not have resolved the tricky legal questions around unionization at TSA, where NTEU and the American Federation of Government Employees want to represent workers, but Kelley says simply holding the sessions has helped build good will.

Neal is "a very open guy," Kelley says. "He was very well-received. He's a good listener, and he's a thoughtful guy. There's no hesitancy to be upfront in a discussion or a conversation, and that goes a long way."


The Government Business Council, the research arm of Government Executive, asked dozens of managers what they wish the chiefs would focus on . . .


Managers believe that senior leaders lack awareness and concern about significant staffing shortfalls at many agencies, and that they continue to pile on work despite the pressure it puts on an already strained workforce. Hiring

The hiring process remains a stumbling block both for federal agencies and job seekers. Managers want chief executives to take ownership of reform, including updating hiring systems and ensuring all job applicants receive a timely response to their inquiries. Onboarding

Managers aren't pleased with the process of bringing new employees on board. They want to see extensive programs established to give new hires the necessary equipment, a clear set of tasks, a mentor and training on their agency's culture. Career Development

Professional development programs can have a significant impact on recruitment, retention and morale, and ensure the best people make it into leadership positions, managers say. They believe CHCOs could create career tracks and programs to lead people along those paths.