Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Chief Human Capital Officers Need to Be Empowered to Really Transform Federal HR, Experts Say

More collaboration between chief human capital officers and agency executives and the Office of Personnel Management is needed to improve the hiring and retention of the federal workforce.

A panel of former federal officials said Wednesday that chief human capital officers need a more collaborative relationship both with executives at their agencies and with the Office of Personnel Management to reform federal HR policies.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on government operations and border management hosted the discussion to mark the 20th anniversary of the law that created the chief human capital officer role in the federal government. Lawmakers solicited feedback on what can be done to enable HR leaders to solve long-standing problems, like the time it takes agencies to find and hire qualified job candidates.

Angela Bailey, who retired last month after serving 40 years in government, most recently as the Homeland Security Department’s chief human capital officer, said the CHCO Council would be more beneficial if agency representatives on the council were better represented in its leadership.

“The CHCO Council is, to the best of my knowledge, the only council cochaired by OPM and [the Office of Management and Budget],” she said. “It’s not actually cochaired by the CHCOs who run the agencies. All the other C suite councils are cochaired by the experts in those positions within the agency, so I do think it would be extremely helpful if the CHCO Council was actually chaired by CHCOs on a rotational basis, with OPM and OMB providing support.”

Terry Gerton, president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration, noted that her organization has also recommended amending the law to provide individual chief human capital officers to serve as co-chairs of the council, and said that OPM needs to do more to empower the council and serve as a partner in developing HR policy.

“The OPM director needs to specifically include the CHCO Council [in policy development] and consider them as strategic partners and expert advisors, rather than simply as a communications tool to agencies,” she said. “The council needs to have the standing that the other CXO councils have within their professional fields. It may not completely solve the problem, but it will put them back at the center of policy and regulatory development.”

Subcommittee Chairwoman Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., questioned former acting OPM Director Michael Rigas, who served in the role from the beginning of the pandemic until the end of the Trump administration, about reports that OPM failed to consult with the CHCO Council regularly.

“We’ve heard about challenges communicating with OPM and with OPM not allowing feedback on high profile matters like Schedule F, although the communications challenges stretched to smaller items as well,” Sinema said. “Since OPM can usually override the CHCO Council on policy, what changes to the setup would improve the ability of individual chief human capital officers to be successful?”

“During my tenure I was not aware of any communications challenges with the CHCO Council,” Rigas responded. “As OPM director, I met with the CHCO Council and interacted with them more in my tenure probably than any other OPM director in the history of the agency, largely because we had weekly and bi-weekly calls with the CHCO Council to navigate our way through the pandemic and make sure agencies have the flexibilities and authorities they needed.”

But NAPA concluded the opposite was true in its report on how to reform OPM. Although the agency held weekly “virtual meetings” with members of the council and agency HR directors, they were primarily to “share information.”

“From March 2020 through January 2021, no official formal meetings (i.e., meetings led by the acting director) were held,” the report states. “To fill the void, CHCO members met independently—a situation they reportedly found productive as they set the agenda and priorities. Initially, OPM and OMB were not invited to participate. However, they were later included in the sessions to listen and contribute, but not direct the meetings.”

Bailey said that in order for OPM to become a true partner with chief human capital officers to improve HR policies, the agency needs to move away from its focus on transactional compliance, a change previously endorsed by NAPA.

“One of the bottom lines is that so many rules and regulations are written for the 3% of society that aren’t going to follow them anyhow, so we’ve built an entire system based on distrust and whether we think an agency will do something nefarious,” she said. “At this point, OPM’s customer is Title 5, not the agencies. Their goal is to protect Title 5 at all costs, and when you’re protecting a law and not dealing with realism or the practicality of what an agency is trying to struggle to do, there’s always going to be a situation where we’re banging heads with each other.”

Steve Lenkart, executive director of the National Federation of Federal Employees, suggested that OPM could move away from its traditional role approving individual agency actions, like buyout authority and cash bonuses for individual employees, to a risk-based approach.

“[OPM] could allow [chief human capital officers] to move ahead on things within the law and supported by merit systems principles, because they need the flexibility to go ahead and do some things,” Lenkart said. “OPM can always audit afterward, the Merit Systems Protection Board can always review actions and make corrections if necessary, and Congress can always appropriate or authorize.”