It’s Time to Act on the Workforce Portion of the President’s Management Agenda
Despite human capital reforms being referenced in recent management agendas, not much has actually changed.
Over the past 20 years, four successive presidents (George W. Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden) have touted their president’s management agendas intended to improve government management and operations. In some form or another, each agenda promised to strengthen and improve the federal workforce. Yet, in some form or another, each agenda has fallen significantly short of expectations.
The management agendas have created a perception that administrations are focused on the workforce, but at the same time, administrations consistently fail to marshal the required resources and political leadership attention necessary to meaningfully drive and sustain positive change.
Any career federal employee or federal community stakeholder can see that the resources and political commitment never materialize to match the tone and promise of the management agendas. Instead, the government’s strategic human capital management challenges continue to grow deeper and accumulate more organizational debt.
That is not to say the management agendas are entirely obsolete. An assortment of pilots and initiatives are funded by president’s management agenda cross-agency priority goals. These initiatives create the sense of movement and activity— does anybody remember the GEAR Center? Yet, these initiatives are seldom sustained due to lack of committed leadership and resources to scale and operationalize them. As a result, even these small, positive innovations do little to move the needle toward government-wide improvement.
Taken together, the management agenda efforts of the last two decades have not addressed the governmentwide human capital challenge, as evidenced by the Government Accountability Office’s latest “High Risk List” report, where over two-thirds of high risk areas suffer from pervasive human capital management challenges. The Chief Human Capital Officers Council 2022 Report to Congress also reveals chronic barriers to effective workforce management.
The Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget have tried for years to mitigate these pervasive issues with minimal success. However, the CHCO Council 2022 report to Congress provides a clear framework for elevating workforce issues and requesting regular updates from council co-chairs OPM Director Kiran Ahuja and OMB Deputy Director for Management Jason Miller. Where are the “fenced” resources coming from; how they are being applied, and what is actually being accomplished?
CHCOs report that the “presence of legacy IT systems in a number of federal agencies,” coupled with pay challenges, “make it hard for the federal government to attract talent and demonstrate that it is on the cutting edge.”
While the administration pours hundreds of millions of dollars into artificial intelligence and zero trust architecture priorities, the dedicated funding to support and improve HR IT systems is rarely provided or even discussed. The OPM Federal Data Strategy contains some initiatives; however, any movement will require dedicated and sustained funding beyond president’s management agenda funds and OPM’s base budget to be effective on the enterprise scale across government.
The Hiring Process
CHCOs also reported that the government’s hiring process, timelines and experience overall present barriers to attracting needed staff.
“The length of the hiring process was a significant barrier to recruiting and hiring early career talent,” with the private sector engaging, interviewing and providing job offers to candidates faster than the government. Further, the report notes, “On top of this, the wait for a security clearance before work can begin also drives away top talent.”
Training, Resources and Support for Transforming the HR Function in Government
The report indicates that “HR talent in the federal government is scarce,” and notes that “HR specialists are overwhelmed, lack the bandwidth and capacity to get hiring certificates issued quickly, and do not have dedicated resources to focus on digital talent hiring.” Further, it notes that CHCOs see “HR specialists needing training to better keep pace with a persistently changing digital sector where the hiring authorities across agencies, positions, and types of skills needed constantly fluctuate.”
Competitive Pay and Addressing Pay Compression
“Agencies often lack the ability, and the resources, to offer competitive salaries compared to their private sector counterparts,” the CHCO Council report to Congress states. Competitive, market-oriented pay is a challenge for government hiring at all levels, whether for in-demand early career technical talent or for experienced senior leaders, according to the CHCO Council report.
President Biden’s fiscal 2024 budget suggests that the president will take action to address pay caps and pay compression, and the CHCO Council report reiterates this promise. Unfortunately, nothing has been accomplished.
OMB recently solicited stakeholders, including the Senior Executives Association, for a legislative proposal on these items—suggesting the promise has been a talking point of the administration without a drafted proposal or concrete plan for making this a reality. OPM has the expertise and knowledge to accomplish the task. Yet it is not clear OPM has been directed to draft such a proposal.
If addressing competitive pay and pay compression is truly a priority for this administration, workforce leaders should be actively crafting legislation on the issue and advocating with Congress. There are no signs this is occurring.
The time for rhetorical half measures and perpetuation of the status quo must end. If the federal workforce is really the administration’s top priority, it is time for the White House to act on its president’s management agenda promise.
A Bold Vision for Revitalizing Federal Workforce Capacity
The Senior Executives Association promotes a robust policy agenda—one focused on the entire federal workforce and another joint agenda focused on issues affecting the Senior Executive Service –designed to effectively address root causes that may challenge the effectiveness of these career leaders.
With several presidential candidates discussing proposals like Schedule F, which fundamentally undermines the merit system, the time for collaborative action is now.
SEA remains ready to collaboratively work with policymakers and other stakeholders to rebuild America’s workforce capacity. There is no time to wait.
Marcus L. Hill is chairman of the Board of Directors of the Senior Executives Association. His 37-year federal career, including 15 years as a member of the Senior Executive Service, focused on human capital management with roles in the Defense and Homeland Security departments.