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From Crisis to Opportunity for OPM

The timing could hardly be better to improve HR in government.

There is always empathy when a leader takes the fall for problems they did not create. Katherine Archuleta’s resignation was similar to that when a losing team’s coach resigns. Redskin fans have lived with that for years.

For the Office of Personnel Management and the federal HR community this could be the start of that turnaround, maybe a renaissance. The interim director, Beth Cobert, is the first person in decades to have solid experience and strong credentials in human resource management. The HR community should be cheering. Some should be apprehensive because of what may be her plans and expectations.

She now will have roughly 18 months to improve the HR function in government. The timing could hardly be better. Assuming she wants the job, Congress should move quickly to confirm her before she has second thoughts. She could use every minute for the rebuilding. The professionalization of the function is something every federal leader should embrace.

Where to Begin?

One possibility is to start by engaging agency leaders in a confidential evaluation of their HR office. When companies want to assess the customers’ reactions to a product or service, they ask focus groups. Many leaders have no experience with added value HR practices but they know if their HR office is enhancing agency performance.

Actually the first step should be to bring together a group of thought leaders in HR to discuss the future role of HR in government. There are very real differences between the public and private sectors but if the discussion is led by someone from, for example, the Partnership for Public Service the reality of government can be addressed. They can put ideas on the table for consideration by federal officials.

HR Metrics

OPM should restart its HRstat project and promote the development of uniform HR metrics at each agency. There are a number of widely used metrics to track experience with the gamut of HR activities from recruiting to retirements. One, for example, is the time to fill a vacancy. The cost to fill a vacancy is another useful metric.

Comparative metrics from across government would be useful to highlight problems and prompt competition. Making them public will raise the pressure to improve. As a guess, some of the data will be eye-opening.

But metrics have to be used carefully. One that is often cited is the ratio of HR staff to the number of employees. Zero would be best if they add no value, but the assessment is very different if they add value. Similarly, reducing the time to fill a vacancy is important, but not when it leads to hiring poorly qualified talent. The goal is to identify opportunities to strengthen HR’s contribution.

Improving Employee Morale

Low morale has been reflected in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey for years. The 2015 survey results will be released soon and can be used in focus groups to understand the reasons morale is low as well as to develop action plans to address problems.

The groups can bring together employees from specific demographic groups, occupations, organization levels or units where the scores are particularly low and declining. Since young workers are the future, discussion groups should be formed to discuss their experience and the changes that will make their experience more rewarding.

HR offices should take the lead in developing action plans for improvement. Persistent low morale undermines employee commitment and their performance.

Getting the Basics Right

Improving the basics should be an early goal. Metrics will generate the data OPM and the HR offices need to assess and improve current HR activities – recruiting, selection, onboarding, training, etc. The CHCOs should commit to agency leaders that plans have been developed to improve the basics.

A basic that every agency should address is the planning for the loss of talent to retirement. It’s straightforward to project how workforce demographics are likely to unfold and the skill gaps to expect over the next three to five years. That’s workforce planning. Agencies need to plan to add those skills. They should also have people identified to fill key positions when there are vacancies. That’s succession planning. Those systems became common in business three decades ago.

Performance Management

The low scores on several FEVS questions highlight what is perhaps the most serious workforce management problem – employee performance management. It’s central to improving performance and managing careers. Employees want to have their value recognized.

This is not a problem in which effective practices can be mandated or purchased off the shelf. Employees need constructive feedback on the competencies important to job success. That can come from several sources – supervisors, co-workers, and customers – but a key is securing commitment to making the practice a success. There are federal success stories.

OPM as a Model and Resource

OPM should commit to develop “best practice” policies, practices and systems for its own workforce. It should be a model for the best in human resource management. The agency could be a laboratory for assessing new ideas and developing strategies to help other agencies transition successfully to more effective practices.

The new director’s consulting experience enabled her to work with and learn from the best-managed employers. She can now use that experience to make government a better place to work.

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