The Future of HR in Government

Managers need trusted workforce advisers instead of compliance cops.

This is the first article in a two-part series on the future of human resources in government.

Much has been written recently about the future of HR, both inside and outside of government. One article went so far as to suggest splitting HR into administrative and organizational roles because of the general perception that HR is more of a transactional activity focused on compliance and paperwork and does not add significant value to the larger organization.

In government, this perception is exacerbated by the size of the workforce and the myriad laws, rules, regulations and oversight that require a high degree of record keeping. These factors, coupled with the many protections that often lead to complaints about selections, promotions, and disparate treatment, among other things, make compliance a must. The problem is that as long as government HR staff and activities focus primarily on transactions and compliance, managers will continue to see them as a necessary evil, rather than crucial partners who can help them achieve their goals and objectives.

While the perception of HR in government has never been strongly favorable, the federal environment has changed and the HR community has not kept pace. The issues include:

  • Government organizations are facing increasing demands for improved performance.
  • Agencies are under enormous scrutiny from Congress, inspectors general, the media and the public, especially with the advent of social media.
  • The centralization of HR under the Clinton administration’s reinventing government initiative has caused an outflow of experts from the field.
  • Since the initiative, government attorneys have had more impact on the HR decision-making process, which has not always been for the better.
  • The lack of accountability in government continues to be troubling.

Demands for Improved Performance

As the world evolves and competition increases, the performance bar is continually being raised, even in government. For instance, we’ve seen Cabinet-level secretaries forced to resign because their organization was simply not cutting it. Moreover, Congress recently passed a law making it easier to fire senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department. Additionally, there have been proposals to reduce the protections for a much larger segment of the federal government.

While government leaders are looking for ways to improve performance, HR needs to support the effort and identify ways to provide value. This means moving beyond compliance and processing transactions into areas such as change management, performance management and possibly process improvement.

Increased Scrutiny

With a push for transparency and relatively easy access to performance information on the Internet, many federal officials know that the government is potentially only one report, one article or one exposé away from even more intense scrutiny. As a result, officials need skilled and insightful professionals who can help navigate the sometimes muddy waters in which they operate (e.g., how can they deal with a newly discovered performance problem? What if someone is “cooking the books”? What if there is a widespread case of sexual harassment?) .

In the past, officials often could turn to one or more savvy HR experts for support and guidance. Because of the centralization of HR under the reinventing government initiative, there are not as many skilled government HR experts available.

The Centralization of HR

When the initiative was implemented, thousands of HR jobs were eliminated, and much of the work—including staffing, classification, processing and records—was centralized to low-cost areas. As a result, the general perception was that HR was no longer valued in the federal government, causing many HR experts to retire, leave government or change career fields.

The HR work left behind at work sites such as advisory services was frequently absorbed by local staffers who were not skilled HR advisers and did not have easy access to skilled HR professionals that they could turn to in order to develop their skills. This forced government leaders and managers to often look elsewhere for HR guidance and advice.

Attorneys’ Impact on HR

The quality of HR advisory services has diminished across much of government, causing managers to turn elsewhere for advice on complex HR issues. The logical place to turn was to government attorneys. After all, they are skilled at analyzing cases and are trained litigators.

The problem, however, is that many government lawyers are already overwhelmed with traditional legal work and, more importantly, they are not trained in HR management. Attorneys tend look at personnel cases from a legal perspective, not an HR perspective. Typically, they will ask: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the case? Can we win this before a third party?

While a trained HR expert would ask these same questions, he/she should also be looking at the case in a broader context (e.g., how will dealing with this performance issue help us improve our performance? How will addressing this misconduct help us improve our culture?) The difference in how attorneys and HR experts look at cases and provide guidance to management is crucial. It’s the key reason government needs to rebuild its HR expertise and have personnel experts provide much of the upfront advice to government managers.

Lack of Accountability

The lack of accountability continues to receive a high degree of attention because it is universally perceived as a problem in government, and with good reason. The government simply does not hold its employees accountable in the same manner that its private sector counterparts do.

There are many reasons for this, including the disproportionately high number of protections that government employees enjoy and the frequent involvement of unions.

The real reason government does not hold employees accountable is that managers simply lack the will and/or the skill to do so. Too many government managers would prefer to simply move an employee rather than deal with him.

The thinking is: “Why devote so much of my time trying to deal with a problem employee when I can simply push him off to someone else?” (This, in and of itself, is an issue that a skilled HR professional could effectively address.) For those who have tried going down this path, far too many have seen their efforts go up in smoke when a deciding official felt it was best to settle the case (e.g., with a reduced action, moving or even promoting the employee.)

Having the skill means having an experienced, trusted HR adviser who can guide managers through every step of the process and teach them how to get things done, rather than state why something can’t be done. It means having a resource that will help counter moves made by employees and/or their representatives, rather than caving in at the first pushback.

Having skilled human resource officials available to help managers develop the will and the skill, would go a long way toward rebuilding the reputation of HR in the government.

Stewart Liff is a fellow with The Performance Institute, specializing in human resources management, visual performance management and team development. He is the author of multiple books, including Managing Government Employees and A Team of Leaders. 

(Image via Kritchanut/