HR Holds the Keys to Revitalizing Public Service

The pandemic and emerging budget problems make it imperative to manage government’s people assets more effectively.

The COVID 19 crisis is changing the world of work in every sector. In government agencies, the crisis and shift to remote work have prompted a very different approach to staffing and workforce management. The crisis has altered how supervisors and their people interact and communicate, made front line workers essential, and highlighted the value of individual expertise and initiative. In a crisis everyone needs to be responsive and focused on delivering results.  

Three decades ago the private sector was confronted with a similar problem. Until the late 1980s it was business as usual for U.S. companies. That decade saw global, low-cost competitors emerge, forcing companies to become more agile and responsive to market developments. The proliferation of personal computers and the internet facilitated decentralized decision making and opened the door to worker empowerment. It's common in business today to find employees who rarely see their supervisor. The number of employees working remotely has mushroomed but it’s not a new problem for business.

For public employers, the transition to a “new normal” promises to be far more complex; the pandemic has exacerbated workforce problems that have existed for years. It’s also given employees a reason to work remotely, and that, as one writer commented, “changes a worker’s life fundamentally, which then impacts countless other lives and local economies.” Large numbers will want to continue working from home.

Although it's difficult to look beyond the crisis, the fall election and the direction the government takes in 2021 could have significant public service implications.  

Government has two well documented workforce problems. It's losing large numbers of experienced workers to retirement plus few younger workers are interested in government careers. The George Floyd protests are likely to intensify the declining interest. Now a new Government Accountability Office report highlights the heavy turnover among new hires: "More than 60% of recent federal employee hires left within two years,” as a recent headline put it. The hours invested in recruiting, onboarding and training a new hire make that costly.  

A related problem is the emergence of new fields, exemplified by cybersecurity, along with jobs requiring new skills. The latter involve hard skills like blockchain and analytical reasoning as well as soft skills like persuasion and critical thinking. Additionally, supervising remote workers necessitates a different skill set to be effective. The proposed 2021 budget called for reskilling 400,000 federal workers but apparently to date only a handful of IT specialists have graduated. The need extends far beyond creating cybersecurity specialists. 

Although not a workforce problem, government’s “culture of compliance” is deeply entrenched. No agency should make “meeting the requirements of the rules ... more important than delivering value to taxpayers.”  The prevailing culture is a high barrier to improved performance. Civil-service rules contribute to that culture and are a barrier to responding to COVID-19 as well as raising performance levels. Culture change is badly needed but that’s not feasible in the absence of civil service reform.

Those problems predate the pandemic and are attributable to government’s antiquated and ineffective people management practices. The policies and systems governing hiring, onboarding, career management, and performance management need to be replaced. Training and development are central to the need for reskilling. All of that and more comes together to improve the work experience that’s causing new hires to quit. COVID-19 diverted attention from the need for reform.  

Unfortunately, the crisis buried the March 2020 report, Inspired to Service, from the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service created to address government’s staffing problems. In addition to reviewing the military selective service process, the commission recommended changes “to increase participation in military, national, and public service.” The commission concluded “civil service personnel systems require urgent attention. The difficulties facing [agency staffing] are so severe that … strategic human capital management [was identified] as a high risk area in need of transformation if [government] is to work effectively and efficiently.” 

The report concludes that “existing practices block younger Americans and workers with critical skills from entering public service and jeopardize the ability of agencies to replenish their workforce in the face of a looming wave of retirements,” and notes that modernizing the civil service will be politically and technically difficult. It makes a number of recommendations to address near-term, urgent problems and long-term, structural issues: 

  • Revamp hiring systems for students and recent graduates to bring fresh thinking to government and increased energy to government operations. 
  • Develop and implement a new personnel system to make government more competitive with the private sector.
  • Address critical-skills challenges. 
  • Promote a high-performing personnel culture by “elevating and investing in the human resources function; developing agency workforce plans to hire, retain, and reskill qualified individuals; and empowering agencies to communicate with the public about their mission and to promote service will foster a culture in which agencies make full use of available personnel authorities.”

This is a damning statement for the civil service system. The commission saw that reform as urgent and “elevating and investing in the human resources function” is the key. The final report discussed “long term, structural changes” that are only possible if HR offices are prepared to take the lead in each agency.

In the business world upgrading the HR function has been a priority for the past decade. HR now has a seat at the executive table. The often-cited Fast Company article, “Why We Hate HR,” was published in 2005. It was countered in 2015 by Wharton’s Peter Cappelli in the article “Why We Love to Hate HR and What HR Can Do About It.” He stated, “Little has been done in the past few decades to examine the value of widely used practices … By separating the effective from the worthless, HR leaders can secure huge payoffs for their organizations.” The early turnover of young employees should set off alarms.

Cappelli’s argument is directly relevant to public employers. It’s time to separate “the effective from the worthless.” It's not an exaggeration to argue failed people management practices threaten government operations. Change cannot be initiated until after the November election but it's fully possible to begin documenting the practices that need to be replaced. There are problems that should not be deferred.  Reducing the early termination of new hires, for example, is essential.

To set the stage for change in the months after the January inauguration, agencies should undertake surveys and focus groups asking managers and employees for feedback and suggestions to improve workforce management practices. That should be an early step in defining a new normal.

In a recent radio interview, New York’s Governor Cuomo outlined a similar strategy for defining a new normal. His recommended approach starts with answering a series of questions (including a couple I added): What is our mission? What do we want to accomplish? How many workers are needed? How do we want to organize? What skills are essential? For teams with both in-office and remote workers, how can we best manage a hybrid operation? How will we measure results? The answers provide a basis for identifying areas where change is needed.

Cuomo’s comments are unusual for elected officials. Most have little or no experience managing large groups of employees. Their focus is public policy, not effective management. They need to understand why for years the Government Accountability Office has made human capital management a “high risk” area. Elected officials also need to understand the potential gains from reform. Their solid support is essential for successful change.

Managers and employees can and should also play a valuable role in planning and implementing new people practices and systems. New practices of course are tools used by managers and they need to feel comfortable using them. That was the very successful strategy adopted by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in the years after it was created. Today the lead goal in its 2025 Strategic Goals is:

“People: We will emphasize “people first … mission always” as we invest in recruiting and retaining a world-class workforce that advances our tradecraft and innovates solutions to meet mission needs.”

“People first” is a strategy every agency should consider.

But government needs more than new HR practices. In business, the role of HR is undergoing a significant redefinition and expansion. That was discussed in a Harvard Business Review article, “People Before Strategy: A New Role for the CHRO.” Three leading business consultants argue HR executives should work closely with CEOs and chief financial executives as a troika. Additionally, in the new role, HR specialists are advisers to line managers on workforce concerns:

“It’s time for HR to make the same leap that the finance function has made in recent decades and become a true partner to the CEO … the CHRO should help the CEO by building and assigning talent, especially key people, and working to unleash the organization’s energy.”

The importance of effective talent management and “unleashing the organization’s energy” is the key to raising performance levels. It will require creating an HR center of excellence to move the commission’s recommendations forward. The potential gains warrant the investment. HR’s administrative specialists should be a separate center of excellence.

The pandemic and emerging budget problems make it imperative to manage government’s people assets more effectively. The commission is correct, “The Federal civil service personnel systems require urgent attention.” With an aging workforce, government needs to attract and retain a new generation of highly qualified workers. Workforce analytics show the cost of continued inaction will be high. In the words of the commission, “the work of public servants [is] vital to the security and well-being of the Nation.”