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Analysis: Making Government Cool Again

Without changes in hiring and pay systems, the president will have trouble making good on his promise.

At this point in our nation's history, the federal government has many distinct recruiting advantages -- namely challenging, rewarding and stable work that allows employees to make a difference in the lives of others. Based on the results of the 2008 Federal Human Capital Survey, it is obvious federal employees are inspired by their jobs. More than 90 percent of respondents indicated that their work was important, a testimonial agencies should highlight as a draw to federal service. Perhaps the most important enticement is President Obama's pledge to make government service "cool again," which already is generating interest in working for America. According to the Office of Personnel Management, the number of monthly hits on USAJOBS.com spiked to 180 million in February, up from 100 million in December 2008.But without changes to the federal hiring and pay systems, agencies might not have the capacity to process the influx of applicants, hire people in a timely manner, and retain those who make it through the system. If dramatic improvements are not made soon, the government could lose the opportunity to hire the workers and leaders needed to govern in these critical times.The administration should fully utilize the power and expertise of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council and build on the success of the End-to-End Hiring Initiative, introduced in November 2008. This program, designed by OPM and the council, provides a template for improving all facets of the hiring process. The next phase is to develop key metrics for the initiative, in consultation with the CHCO Council. Recent provisions outlined in a bipartisan bill (S 736) from Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, provides an overview of the strategy for developing and measuring success.The hiring process isn't the only challenge needing attention. In a March speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Obama said, "Too many have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay." He said it was time to "start rewarding good teachers." Hopefully, that mind-set can be translated to the federal government. This would certainly send another clear signal that Uncle Sam is a cool employer. But as it stands, this issue is ripe for reform, as only 26 percent of federal employees in the human capital survey said there was a link between pay and performance.Performance-based pay is critical to recruiting. In a May 2008 survey by Gallup and the Council for Excellence in Government, 51 percent of respondents said the best motivators for seeking a government job were "opportunities for growth and advancement based on performance." But the future of performance-based pay is at best, delayed and at worst, defeated.The review of the Defense Department's National Security Personnel System is understandable, since it is customary for new political leaders to evaluate program performance -- and NSPS is not without shortcomings. But even the most ardent critic would have to acknowledge positive aspects of the system as well. A September 2008 Government Accountability Office report (GAO-08-773) noted that Defense has taken the steps to "ensure that NSPS is fair, effective and credible." Proposing wholesale changes or disbanding Defense's performance-based pay system could undermine the president's charge to make government a career destination.More important, this review could define the future of performance-based pay for the entire federal government, which is why the CHCO Council must be included in the discussion. Its members, especially deputy CHCOs, have a vast understanding of the intricacies of the federal personnel system. Their experience, expertise and insights could prove invaluable in resolving the most pressing human capital challenges impeding the ability to make government cool again.John Salamone, a senior consultant at Federal Management Partners Inc., worked in federal government for 16 years and was executive director of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council.