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There’s Reason For Optimism In Federal Personnel Management

Employees at all levels could benefit from having a credible advocate leading the Office of Personnel Management.

The nomination of Jeff Tien Han Pon to head the Office of Personnel Management is a welcome development. I have not met Pon, but his credentials are exemplary. Previous OPM directors no doubt have been solid citizens who knew government, but aside from Beth Colbert, I do not recall any who had extensive experience in human resource management. That is as far back as Scotty Campbell, who is credited with the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Now it appears that OPM will be led by someone who has had reasons to understand the best HR practices in the private sector, the problems veterans have in transitioning from the military, and hands-on accountability for federal personnel management.  His experience is unique.

Personnel management is undergoing a radical transformation. I’ve worked in HR both as a consultant and as a manager for over 40 years. Sometimes the work involved meaningless paperwork. I’ve worked for the best and for many who were not. I know how easy it is to make jokes or blame HR for an organization’s problems.

A simplistic measure of HR’s new stature is the compensation. The highest paid executives in 2016 earned more than $6 million (including stock appreciation). A number earned more than $1 million. Although their compensation is typically not publicly reported, it’s been noted that HR executives are paid just below top finance executives and more than marketing or technology executives.

The emerging role for HR is working with other senior executives to create a positive work environment where employees are challenged, trusted and expected to perform at their best. A good source to appreciate the changes taking place is the annual Fortune article on the “Best Companies to Work For.” The brief descriptions and comments for each of the listed companies would be eye opening for federal employees. It’s the culture that makes those great places to work.

It’s highly likely that Pon had opportunities while he was with the Society for Human Resource Management to meet and discuss the best ideas in HR with those corporate chief human resource officers and with leading consultants. He’s well positioned to invite leading edge thinkers to OPM for brainstorming sessions.

I am certain Pon understands the impact of the civil service system on government operations. He lived with it at the Energy Department and also had to find ways to work within it and around it in his previous stint at OPM. He is exceptionally well qualified to lead civil service reform. His experience leading teams that developed HR Shared Service Centers and USAJobs gives him solid credibility as someone willing to tackle problems.

Employees at all levels will benefit from having a credible advocate leading OPM. Congress should act quickly to confirm him.