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Report praises OPM’s workforce planning

GAO says agency responded aggressively to 2004 survey results, but could improve training and supervisor-employee relations.

The Office of Personnel Management has taken significant steps to address concerns about leadership and workforce management raised by the 2004 Federal Human Capital Survey, but could improve a morale gap between General Schedule and Senior Executive Service employees and centralize its workforce planning, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

"The results of the 2004 FHCS and the responses of the focus groups [convened in response to the survey] showed that OPM employees were most concerned with leadership and leadership's ability to deal with staff about policies and performance," the report (GAO-08-11) noted. "Employees identified additional problem areas for OPM, including lack of management support, inadequate training for supervisors and managers on performance culture and accountability, and a lack of senior executive interest in and respect for employees."

GAO identified interpersonal skills as a key area where managers and supervisors needed to improve, and issued a requirement that senior executives, managers and supervisors develop plans to close those competency gaps, according to the report.

"Each individual plan identified mandatory and elective training reflecting the specific needs of the individual and addressing any gaps in the target area of interpersonal skills," GAO said. "OPM has developed an agencywide supervisory training curriculum that includes a mix of classroom and Web-based courses such as Interpersonal Skills, Front-Line Leadership and Dealing With Poor Performers."

OPM also is integrating interpersonal skills requirements into its long-term workforce planning, GAO noted.

"The position-based succession planning position profiles for each executive, manager and supervisor include an action plan to prepare the pool of potential internal successors," the report stated. "Plans may include training, professional conference, developmental assignments and other opportunities."

The report praised the consistency with which OPM was planning for future leadership development.

"Our review of 93 of approximately 330 succession planning position profile documents showed that nearly all the sampled documents had been updated within the past year," the report noted. "Our review also confirmed that all of these included an estimation of the prospective successor pool for at least five years out, with two citing the need to begin developing the candidate pipeline at least 10 years in advance."

These steps are particularly important, GAO said, because the results from the 2006 FHCS showed significant gaps between how SES and GS employees view OPM's leadership.

"In both 2004 and 2006, OPM's SES responses were substantially more positive than non-SES responses for the statement 'I have a high level of respect for my organization's senior leaders,'" GAO said. "While OPM has taken steps to address the lack of overall and cross-divisional communication and issues related to employee views of senior management, this gap between SES and GS-level response remains a challenge."

GAO recommended that OPM formalize an agencywide review of workforce planning, which currently takes place primarily at the divisional level.

"By operating at a division level without a well-documented agencywide evaluation process … OPM's top leadership may be missing opportunities to identify, and address, weaknesses in its workforce planning and succession efforts," the report noted. "For example, it was not evident that OPM can identify whether it is optimizing its investment in training and development by making the appropriate level of investment and prioritizing funding across divisions so that it addresses the most important needs."

The report said training was an area that needed particular improvement, as OPM fell 11 percentage points below the rest of the federal government in the category "the workforce has the job-relevant knowledge and skills necessary to accomplish organizational goals." Only 39 percent of OPM employees said the office examined their training needs, as opposed to 51 percent of workers in the rest of government.

OPM also curtailed spending on all discretionary activities by 5 percent in fiscal 2007 to help pay for retirement systems modernization, cutting training funding, and may make further cuts in fiscal 2008, GAO added.

OPM plans to incorporate GAO's findings and recommendations into its workforce planning.

"While our progress and accomplishments to date are noteworthy, we acknowledge that our work must be ongoing, and we must sustain and build upon our current momentum," OPM director Linda Springer wrote in her response to the report. "We appreciate the insights and recommendations provided in the report, as these will be useful in shaping both ongoing and planned human capital management initiatives within the agency."