Federal Hiring Freeze Puts Performance Management in the Spotlight

Human Resources leaders face new challenges as a result.

The federal hiring freeze is on, and federal human resources leaders are sifting through the details to determine how it applies to their agency. But in terms of a long-term personnel strategy, many of these details are only somewhat important.

The real story is how the freeze and other plans imposed by President Trump will impact agency operations now and in the future. Performance management is more important than ever for federal Human Resources leaders. Here’s why.

1. Performance analytics are critical.

Peter Drucker coined the phrase “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” While some have disputed the concept, what can’t be questioned is the increased reliance on data and analytics throughout the business world and in government. And this trend will continue. Indeed, former Attorney General Eric Holder gave a government twist to Drucker’s phrase when he noted that “what gets measured is what gets funded and what gets funded is what gets done.”

Measuring employee performance will likely be increasingly important for the new administration. Agencies will look for insight into top performers to see who is best prepared to move into leadership positions as boomers retire and succession plans take hold. With the right analytics, HR leaders can better show the results of workforce investments and what’s at risk with planned and even unplanned turnover. With insightful analytics, agencies can also determine the best strategies to improve things like retention rates.

As further evidence of performance management’s importance, in what may be a sign of things to come elsewhere, the Defense Department is revising its reduction in force policies to make performance the most important factor in deciding whose jobs will be cut in any future RIF, a significant departure from the governmentwide civil service rules that emphasize an employee’s tenure and veteran’s status before performance evaluations.

2. Legacy systems must be modernized.

The federal government spent more than 75 percent of its total information technology budget for fiscal 2015 on maintaining and running legacy systems, according to the Government Accountability Office. With the new administration’s desire to run government more like a business, excessive (or what many would call wasteful) spending on old technology is destined to be a target for fixing.

In the case of performance management, the problem is often even more rudimentary—technology is non-existent or almost non-existent for many agencies. Surprisingly, many federal agencies are still using manual, pen-to-paper “systems” for executing employee performance reviews or using simple OPM forms. The fact that so many manual procedures are being used means excessive expenditures, loss of productivity, redundant effort and unnecessary human error are ingrained into the process—hardly how most businesses prefer to operate. And that won’t be acceptable for federal agencies either.

3. Employee engagement is essential.

The annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) regularly reveals challenges too many agencies face with employee engagement, morale and retention. With hiring curtailed, improving engagement is crucial and can have a positive impact on retention rates. By aligning employee goals and critical elements to agency mission, agencies’ emphasis on accountable performance management can help ensure employees fully understand how their individual contributions help the agency achieve its broader goals. Today’s modern technology, mentioned above, also helps here by facilitating engagement and coaching, a clear desire of today’s millennial workers.

4. Professional development is increasingly valuable.

Rather than simply moving people up the chain of command and into management roles regardless of their skill set and competencies, which has too often been the case in the federal government, it is better to implement thoughtful professional and leadership development programs. These programs identify the best employees that wish to move into more managerial roles and helps transform them into leaders through learning and development career paths. Necessary “soft skills” are typically part of this developmental process, and developing them helps improve the success rate of new leaders. This new learning and development concept, tied directly to an agency’s performance management, will become even more valuable.

5. Succession planning is critical.

Closely tied to performance management is succession planning. With the exodus of baby boomers, succession planning takes on strategic importance. Agencies that have a structured and workable succession plan will likely outperform their counterparts without solid plans. The good news here for agencies struggling with increased retirements and limited or no ability to bring in new talent, moving people up within the organization often leads to faster and easier transitions than hiring outside, which has a higher price tag and a longer timeline for acquiring institutional knowledge.

To implement a strong succession plan, agencies need to identify critical positions and skills, along with high potential employees and top performers. They can then assess the required leadership competencies at higher position levels, compare them with known criteria and measure the progress of employees that have moved into more senior positions. Workforce data and activities, such as training and development programs, can then be evaluated and adjustments made as needed.

The hiring freeze has created anxiety and uncertainty throughout the federal government. But even as some of the initial questions are answered and more clarity develops, it’s clear that performance management will become increasingly important. That’s going to place new challenges and opportunities on the doorsteps of federal HR leaders. With the proper preparation and the appropriate tools, these opportunities will give HR leaders the chance to shine.

Joe Abusamra is a vice president at Acendre.