The CHCOs Game of ‘Survivor’ and How to Win

Five ways HR leaders can rise to the workforce challenge ahead.

If someone scripted the federal workforce’s version of reality TV based on the recent past, it would resemble Survivor, the show about teams working together to overcome obstacles flung their way.

The show would open with a workforce operating with outdated and ineffective workplace practices, and hiring laws that predate personal computers and the Internet. Throw in across-the-board budget cuts, widespread and unpaid employee furloughs, a three-year pay freeze and a 16-day government shutdown. Top it off with more experienced feds retiring and taking their institutional knowledge with them. Unfortunately, for the federal workforce it’s not a reality show but reality.

To gauge the full impact of these forces, the Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton interviewed chief human capital officers and human resources leaders on challenges facing the federal workforce. It is chronicled in the report “Embracing Change: CHCOs rising to the challenge of an altered landscape,” the fifth in a series. Here are some of the findings:

Diminished, unpredictable and inflexible budgets hinder agency performance. Agencies have fewer resources to do the same or more work. “We have more missions now than we were responsible for 30 years ago, but we have fewer employees,” said one CHCO. Another was more direct: “When you just get a broad cut across the board, it hurts everything. And it is stupid. It is just plain stupid.”

Employee engagement is declining. Job satisfaction, as measured by the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings, dropped for the third year in a row—falling to 57.8 on a scale of 100, the lowest since 2003. One CHCO said, “People are bitter, they really are. They’re wondering: ‘How can they tell us our jobs don’t matter?’”

Hiring difficulties persist. When asked what grade they’d give agencies on hiring reform, 11 percent of CHCOs responded with A, 66 percent said B and 23 percent chose C. Reducing the time it takes to hire and simplifying the process were cited as areas in which progress has been made. Enhancing the quality and diversity of new employees, however, remains elusive.

Agencies are not using all the workforce data and analytics tools necessary to manage effectively. Too few CHCOs said they were helped by tools intended to assist them, such as the recently launched governmentwide HRstat—a CHCO-led, data-driven review focused on performance improvement in the human capital area—or the data-driven efforts stemming from cross-agency priority goals. They say it’s still too early to assess the impact these initiatives may have, but interviewees hoped they would help down the road.

The HR infrastructure and workforce need to be strengthened. CHCOs told us that neither the HR infrastructure nor HR workforce are where they need to be. And the quality of services and support for hiring managers is threatened by an outdated HR infrastructure, weak customer service data, skills gaps and inconsistent relationships among human resources staffs across government and between HR staffs and the managers they support.

The Obama administration’s new management agenda takes on some of the issues CHCOs raised in the report. In its fiscal 2015 budget, the administration commits to taking actions to:

  • Enable agencies to hire the best talent from all segments of society
  • Build a world-class federal management team starting with the Senior Executive Service
  • Create a culture of excellence and engagement

Here are some practical recommendations to accelerate progress in addressing federal workforce challenges and help CHCOs endure this new Survivor reality.

  1. Develop a strategy for workforce management in a diminished budget environment. The budget situation is not getting better any time soon, so CHCOs and HR professionals have to find ways to work together, share cost-effective practices and get the job done with less. It would help, of course, if Congress provided realistic budgets and mission expectations and then allowed agencies to manage to budget.

  1. Sustain efforts to reverse the decline in employee engagement. If the tide is to be turned, employee engagement must be championed by the entire leadership.

  1. Remake the federal hiring system. Agencies should maximize hiring flexibilities they have, but Congress and the president should enact reforms that simplify the complex hiring authorities.

  1. Continue to develop and make good use of workforce data and analytics tools. Big data is not just for use in managing programs. CHCOs, the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget should work together to harness data analytics to monitor and improve the workforce across government.

  1. Strengthen the HR workforce, systems and structures. Civil service reform should be a priority, though the HR workforce should not wait to step up its game and improve service to agency customers.  

There’s no tribal council at the end of this Survivor series, and there’s certainly no million-dollar prize for the winner. But with a little grit and determination, CHCOs who rise to the challenge will make a big difference in federal operations and Americans’ trust in government.

Robert Shea is a principal at Grant Thornton and chairman of the National Academy of Public Administration. He was formerly associate director for management at the Office of Management and Budget and counsel to the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. Join the conversation on twitter at #CHCOreport. 

(Image via Nonnakrit/