Chief Challenges

Three former federal human resources chiefs shared their insights on issues ranging from budget constraints, recruitment strategies and the Office of Personnel Management’s relationship with the White House during a December discussion hosted by the Coalition for Effective Change, a group of federal employee and good-government advocates. Linda Springer, Janice Lachance and Constance Berry Newman—dubbed the “three amigas” by moderator Carol Bonosaro of the Senior Executives Association—candidly reflected on the challenges they faced leading the agency tasked with helping federal managers ensure the government attracts and retains the career leaders it needs to carry out its varied and complex missions. Some things haven’t changed; OPM and the Office of Management and Budget, for instance, still have a tense relationship at times, and money often has an outsized influence on every decision. Other challenges are new and uniquely suited to the times. John F. Kennedy’s famous call, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”—the inspiration for an entire generation of public servants in the last half of the 20th century—no longer can be the federal government’s biggest selling point. Up-and-coming federal managers and prospective hires have different expectations, challenges and opportunities than their predecessors did. As Springer, who served as OPM director during the George W. Bush administration put it: “I think we’ve lived off the spirit of public service. At some point, that car is going to run out of gas.”

Linda Springer (George W. Bush administration)

On doing more with less:

“One of the philosophical notions that I have trouble with is that we can do everything on the cheap . . . I think that’s a recipe for poor performance. I think if you don’t fund things, activities, people and other things that go with it to ensure success, then you get what you pay for . . . I really, really have a strong aversion to doing more with less. Take out those two middle words, and just do less.”

Janice Lachance (Clinton administration)
On recruiting the next generation of federal leaders:

“It’s going to get harder and harder for the government to recruit the next generation, because from my studies and my understanding, they want to have an impact. And the reality at this point is that they can have an impact in an organization like I run [the Special Libraries Association], a nonprofit, philanthropic organization. You don’t have to go to the government anymore, so I think there are some pretty specific things that have to be done . . . with the speed of hiring, recruiting and hiring, reassessing the benefits structure. The millennials are looking for different sorts of benefits. Perhaps a fixed retirement benefit isn’t as important to them . . .I’m not saying change that. I’m not going to go on that third rail, but you know, there are specific things they are looking for, that the federal government just isn’t competitive in [such as paid maternity leave].” 

Constance Berry Newman (George H.W. Bush administration) On OPM’s role: 

“I’m saying that the leadership should be at OPM, it should be there. Whoever is at OPM has to understand that money controls so much, but the decisions about human capital planning, what the system ought to be, what the various policies ought to be, that ought  to be in OPM.” 

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