Creating a 21st Century Federal Workforce

A dramatically different method of providing preference to veterans could lead to a radically simplified federal hiring process.

A key element of the president’s management agenda is “Developing a Workforce for the 21st Century.” Clearly, the more than 2 million federal workers can make or break any reforms. The PMA includes proposals for human capital management reforms, strategic workforce management, talent acquisition, continuous learning and agile operations. None of the proposals are unreasonable, nor are they partisan. They are simply sound management practices that are essential for any kind of large-scale government transformation to succeed.

But being reasonable and nonpartisan does not guarantee that the government has the capability to execute the proposals. One essential element that can stand in the way is the federal government’s human capital infrastructure. Does the HR community have the capability to do what the president has proposed? And do laws, regulations and practices provide a framework for success?

The answer is probably no. The federal human capital infrastructure is primarily transaction oriented, and there has been no successful large-scale human capital reform since the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.

Agencies have underfunded their human resources offices, and the Office of Personnel Management has focused on asking agencies to do more rather than updating their own outdated regulations. There are three steps that the administration should take if it hopes to make the PMA’s goal of a 21st century workforce a reality.

1. Review and update OPM regulations to provide the most flexibility allowed under the law.

While observers typically point to federal laws as the barrier to good hiring, the reality is that much of what gets in the way is contained in OPM regulations rather than in statute. That means OPM could rewrite many of them with an eye toward simplification, flexibility, and modernization. For example, the job classification process is so slow, rigid and confusing that potential job seekers may have no idea what kinds of jobs they should be looking at. There are as many as 400 different job series, with multiple grades for each. Add to that job qualification standards that are often outdated and unnecessarily complex, and it is not just job seekers who are frustrated. So are federal managers who want to move employees around to better use their skills and meet mission requirements.

The grades in the General Schedule are prescribed by law, but the hundreds of jobs series and the qualifications standards were mostly created by OPM. That means OPM has the power to reduce the number of job series and the complexity of the classification and qualifications processes, with no legislation required. There are other steps that can be taken under authorities granted to the Director of OPM.

2. Pursue statutory relief to modernize federal hiring, beginning with veteran preference.

The federal hiring process is complicated, slow and burdensome. Virtually no one is happy with it, and it is a substantial barrier to the government’s ability to recruit top talent. While the private sector is content to recruit using resumés, the government continues to demand lengthy job applications and uses dozens of hiring authorities that leave managers and applicants alike confused and frustrated.

One of the chief drivers of the complexity of the hiring process is veteran preference. Veteran preference has been a requirement of the civil service system since President George Washington first considered military service for appointments in his Administration. The objective of recognizing military service with preference in hiring continues to justifiably receive strong support from the public and the Congress. It has also resulted in the profusion of hiring authorities that agencies use, most of which are designed to allow agencies to bypass veteran preference.

A dramatically different method of providing preference to veterans could lead to a radically simplified federal hiring process. The current approach screens out almost all nonveterans from many jobs and leads agencies to pursue simplified hiring authorities that give them greater control over hiring. Congress could authorize OPM to replace the current veteran preference rules with a blanket “direct hire” authority that would allow any agency to hire any veteran for any job for which the veteran is qualified. That approach might improve hiring opportunities for veterans, while eliminating the plethora of hiring authorities that complicate hiring.

In addition to simplified veteran preference, Congress could expand “demonstration project” authority to enable agencies to test human capital practices that are working in the private sector and in state and local government. Such practices, once proven effective in demonstration projects, should routinely be made available to every agency.

3. Modernize federal HR offices.

Federal HR offices tend to have a transaction focus, based in large part on the clerk-to-specialist career path of many HR practitioners and the crushing workload that many of them experience. With the requirement that they understand and apply hundreds of rules for hiring, job classification, and every other aspect of human capital management, it is a wonder that federal HR offices succeed to the degree they do. Most are so busy just keeping the basics working that they have no time to focus on strategic human capital issues.

HR practitioners have pursued the holy grail of “strategic advisor to managers” for decades, but the inability to keep the hiring process running smoothly means many of them will never reach that goal. If that is not enough, we can add the antiquated systems that many are using, including some systems written decades ago in COBOL. Even if the Congress could muster the bipartisan support for reformed federal hiring processes, there is little certainty that an unreformed HR community would be able to execute reformed processes. They will need better training, adequate resources, and modern HR systems to have any chance of successfully making the transition from transaction processors to strategic advisors.

Modernization of the government’s human capital legal and regulatory frameworks are essential underpinnings of a 21st century workforce. Building a professional HR capability is equally essential.

Jeffrey Neal is a senior vice president for ICF, and formerly served as chief human capital officer for the Homeland Security Department and chief human resources officer for the Defense Logistics Agency. This piece originally appeared in Perspectives on the President’s Management Agenda, published by the National Academy of Public Administration. It is republished here with permission.