The Lack of Meaningful Human Capital Metrics Is Hurting Agencies

There’s no effective dashboard documenting the government’s efforts to solve its considerable workforce problems.

The 2002 E-Government Act kicked off critical investments in information technology aimed at improving the transparency, efficiency and effectiveness of federal operations. In fiscal 2020, agencies will spend more than $89 billion on IT Investments (not including classified IT spending or the IT Modernization Fund.) 

As important as IT is, the quality of the federal workforce is equally important to government modernization efforts. Yet there is no comparable blueprint or easily accessed information documenting the government's investment in solving human capital management problems. The only public numbers on human capital spending are the Office of Personnel Management budget and the estimated $300 billion occasionally used in reference to the federal payroll. Fedscope, the government’s workforce data portal, makes it possible to track employee headcounts but no source provides data useful for understanding agency workforce problems or evaluating personnel management practices.

Government’s human capital management is now at a crossroad. The president’s management agenda designated “Developing a Workforce for the 21st Century” as a cross-agency priority (CAP) goal. A recent July overview of the “action plan” lists the challenges, states the long term vision, and concludes with key milestones and a short list of key performance indicators. It sounds impressive. 

However, another document, OPM’s Human Capital Reviews Report, released in March, provides a somewhat different picture of government’s progress in improving human capital management. The report recognizes that agencies working to develop the “21st century federal workforce … face different challenges depending on their mission and the current state of their organizations; but there is little debate that effectively managing human capital is [or should be] at the forefront of leadership's greatest priorities.” 

Several statements from the report confirm the reality (italics added): 

  • “While comprehensive workforce needs analyses are maturing within the Federal government, the process of identifying emerging needs is challenging.”
  • “Across the Federal sector, there is growing capacity for human capital analysis, but most agencies acknowledged there is much work ahead to utilize analytics sophisticated enough to be as predictive and prescriptive as desired.”
  • “Many agencies expressed a need for better tools to help manage data collection, analysis, and reporting. The process of modernizing and improving data collection and analysis is costly, and agencies are working to manage this challenge.”

In fairness, human capital management has never been a priority at any level of government. The subject has had limited attention in the public administration schools as well. In other sectors, an HR revolution has been ongoing for over two decades but it’s not reflected in government practices. The primary barrier is the outdated HC management model mandated by statute. It’s also because reform takes time, possibly four years or more; there are no quick fixes. OPM and its role in government management are stuck in a time warp. Needed changes have never gained support in Congress and prior administrations. 

Now the COVID-19 crisis has raised the prominence of human capital concerns for all employers. Government management experts are focused on the availability and deployment of essential skills, the agility and responsiveness of agencies in their use of talent, and the problems organizing and sustaining essential services with employees in remote locations. Additionally, the pandemic and associated changes in employee lives affects their mental health and contributes to burnout at work. All the workforce problems discussed in reports over the years should be expected to get worse with the pandemic.  

The old saw, "what gets measured gets done," applies here, although it should probably be amended to “what is made public gets managed and is likely to improve.” A good way to make that more likely would be to create human capital dashboards similar to the federal IT dashboard and those now widely used in other sectors. Reporting on human capital projects would reinforce the commitment to change. What’s good for IT is good for HC.

The use of dashboards and HC metrics is certainly not new. Research on the use of metrics and the first dashboards date to the early 1990s. Government got on the bandwagon in that era with the passage of the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act. Somehow, OPM and human capital offices failed to get on that bandwagon and more than two decades later the HCR Report confirms it’s still true. 

There is an exception—NASA has created a website, NASAPeople, that could be a model for other agencies. NASA has consistently been rated as among the best places to work in government.

Government leaders do not have the information to understand the criticality of the workforce problems. That’s basic—with all of government’s problems, it’s easy to ignore undefined and undocumented workforce problems. Elected officials often ignore day-to-day management concerns, focusing instead on public policy issues. There are few champions arguing for change. It’s not like the aggressive marketing promises of new software. There is also pushback and resistance to change from government’s labor organizations. That’s been true at all levels of government. 

The reporting on government’s human capital issues has been far more limited than in the business world. Occasional reports from the National Academy of Public Administration and other organizations argue workforce problems exist but they rarely include confirming metrics. The Defense Department is the only agency required by statute to report and plan manpower requirements. The only other department required to report even basic workforce data is Veterans Affairs. Otherwise, except for reports related to planned pay increases, agency workforce plans receive minimal media attention. 

The human capital community and its almost 44,000 specialists should be able to turn this around. There are also a large number of training and consulting firms with existing contracts. The expertise is available. The HC metrics are documented in any number of books and articles. One list includes over 50 metrics used to track human capital issues. Dashboard products are readily available.

OPM has an available but apparently little used resource, HRStat, which is described as “a strategic human capital performance improvement process that identifies, measures, and analyzes human capital data to inform the impact of an agency's human capital management on organizational results with the intent to improve human capital outcomes.” It includes the HRStat Maturity Model Assessment Tool, which was designed “to assess the maturity level of an agency’s HRStat program.” 

The IT Dashboard could serve as a model. It was developed to provide agencies and the public with the ability to view details of federal IT investments online and to track their progress over time. It summarizes information on over 7,000 of those investments and provides detailed data for over 700 classified as major investments. 

However—and this is a big however—the experts argue that reporting metrics is only the first step. The goal is to use the data to plan and manage change expected to improve performance. The PMA action plan notes that the baseline metrics were from FY 2017, primarily from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, followed with comparative survey results for FY 2018 and FY 2019.

If the data are not used to drive better results, it’s a wasted investment. The goal in compiling FEVS survey data, for example, should be to focus on improving results. But year after year the results have been basically unchanged. Simply reporting survey results has little value.

Another strategy is to compare agency metrics with data from other agencies or employers in other sectors, with the goal of highlighting where improvement is needed. That makes sense but it’s important—and very difficult—to avoid the classic apples-to-oranges problem. OPM’s budget, as an example, funds administrative tasks not found in private sector organizations. 

Government should also reconsider another practice—the practice of recognizing only a small number of the best performers. It's analogous to naming the best picture or a league champion. Competition drives better performance, but the goal is not to crown champions. Every person or agency that shows improved results should be recognized. The promise of financial rewards tied to improved results would strengthen the focus and motivation of individuals and teams. Programs like the Gears of Government Awards for 2020 are important but the practice should be adopted broadly, with success recognized at every level. 

The need to use HC metrics more effectively is obvious. It’s fundamental to improving performance. Two provisions in the E-Government Act could be important if applied to human capital: Project Open Data made metrics public and the E-Gov Fund provided money for innovative projects.

It would be worthwhile to create a cross-agency task force to develop a list of important workforce metrics linked to agency/team performance. They would then need to agree on how the data will be defined, collected, and aggregated. One relevant to all human capital offices is “customer” satisfaction with HC services. Recently promoted supervisors could be asked if they are satisfied with their training. Time to hire and early turnover (percentage of new hires leaving in the first year or two) are relevant metrics in any organization. Such comparative data would show that agency workforce problems are not unique to any one department or agency. 

Many articles have been written to explain why cybersecurity is not just the CIO’s problem. Likewise, workforce problems are not just a problem for the chief human capital officer. Managers at every level of an organization should be held accountable, along with HC offices, for addressing workforce problems. Metrics will trigger a shared focus on better results.