Federal human resources experts said Tuesday that agencies may be able to protect funds for employee training from budget cuts if the spending is designated with a separate line item in their budgets. But this strategy can backfire if it draws attention to the funds.
Most agencies would like to devote more resources to staff training and development, said Robert Tobias, director of the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation at American University in Washington. The institute sponsored a forum on training budgets Tuesday. But when money is tight, Tobias said, agencies and congressional appropriations committees often think of training as a "discretionary expenditure that can be cut," he said.
Tobias said making training a specific line item could call attention to its importance and help keep funding steady in good times and bad. But other participants warned that this strategy sometimes has the opposite effect.
When Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, drafted civil service reform legislation (S. 2651) earlier this year, he considered including a provision requiring all agencies to treat training as a budget line item, said Mike Dovilla, one of his staffers, at the forum. Voinovich decided against the provision because he was concerned it might backfire by making agencies' training budgets more visible, and therefore more vulnerable to cuts during the appropriations process, Dovilla said.
Agencies tend to lump employee development funds with travel and other miscellaneous expenditures in their budgets, making it hard to identify the amount of money devoted to training alone, Dovilla said. If they made training a line item, it would appear separately in the budget.
Agencies could benefit from knowing exactly how much money is available to spend on training, Dovilla said. Two years ago, 11 of 12 agencies surveyed by his office could not pinpoint the amount they spent on employee development. The 12th was reluctant to share how much money was spent, for fear of incurring budget cuts.
The Justice Department already includes training as a line item within its budget, and has noticed some positive effects, said Debra Tomchek, Justice's personnel chief. Justice still needs to provide better training for its support and administrative staff, Tomchek said, but the agency has made a big effort to give its core legal and law enforcement staff adequate resources for employee development. For instance, Justice runs the National Advocacy Center in Columbia, S.C., to train its legal staff. Funds for the center are set aside as a line item in the agency's budget.
The appropriations process is inherently "high risk" with a lot of chances for "things to get derailed," Tomchek said, but it is still important for agencies to find a way to set aside a steady stream of money for training. She suggested that agencies afraid of making employee development a line item for appropriations purposes begin by experimenting with pilot programs that have specific line items.