Is Gov’t HR broken? Advice on how to fix it

Human relations it’s a job that SHOULD be so important, but too often at agencies — and many organizations, it is a role that is mostly regulatory, not strategic.

But HR could hold the keys to the government’s daunting workforce challenges — doing more with less, hiring the right people for the right positions etc.

Tom Fox is the Vice President of Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Serivce. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program why human resources matters.

The Partnership for Public Service’s 7 ways to make gov’t HR better:

  1. Good HR management is a management responsibility. HR staff members are there to provide advice and support, but each individual manager must play an active role as well. This includes being available to work closely with HR staff to discuss succession planning, recruiting, assessment strategies, employee development needs and performance management. HR staff cannot know what your needs are unless you invite them to the management table.
  2. When hiring entry-level HR staff, federal hiring officials need to target highly capable individuals with an interest in the field. Long gone are the days, if they ever existed, when “anyone can do HR.” We especially need individuals with exceptional analytical and communication skills. Managers outside the HR function should support efforts to invest in attracting and hiring great HR talent.
  3. Even great talent must be nurtured and given an opportunity to grow, develop and mature. Federal leaders and managers can help develop highly competent HR professionals by supporting training and development programs. One particularly useful is by providing developmental details into line positions outside of HR to help them better understand the business of the organization. Individual HR staff members should be encouraged to take charge of their own career development and supported when they do.
  4. OPM and the CHCO Council recently launched an excellent online HR career development center called HR University. HR staff should be encouraged to use the website and given time to take advantage of the resources provided on that site.
  5. When a human resources staff member does a particularly good job, make sure that the work is recognized and rewarded. At a minimum, let their supervisor know. Conversely, when you do not receive the appropriate level of service, make sure you have that conversation as well. Try to reach agreement with your HR office on reasonable standards and expectations on both their part and yours, and then hold each other accountable for living up to those standards.
  6. Sometimes even highly competent HR staff members are frustrated by outdated or dysfunctional HR systems, policies and procedures. Federal leaders should work together to support modernization of those systems. This may involve working across agency lines, for example, to adopt more standardized HR information technology systems to share training opportunities, or even to develop proposed changes to outdated HR laws and regulations.

Don’t miss our interview with HR specialist Liz Ryan: Why HR Matters

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Kevin Schafer

Hard work should pay off… One would think that HR would be willing to take a risk with their younger, star performers… promoting them into positions where they make the call rather than getting punished for his or her efforts (i.e. suspended without pay)

Roseann Julien

One of the biggest problems I’ve seen in government (at the state and local level— can’t speak for federal) is that managers and agencies tell their employees “you need to change agencies in order to get promoted or get a raise.” This does a huge disservice to the agencies, the employees and the public. If government HR dedicates itself to retaining and promoting talented employees, government operations and the public would benefit greatly. Can anyone explain why government HR doesn’t invest more in employee retention policies?

Terrence (Terry) Hill

As an HR practitioner, I can tell you that there is a shortage of certified HR professionals in the government. Those dedicated professionals with both advanced degrees and professional certifications from organizations such as the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), combined with experience is a variety of agencies and HR specialties, are usually the best HR professionals and provide the highest quality of consultative services.

Earl Rice

Well, Emily, you tell me if [Federal] Government HR is broke?

The current Federal System all came about when the “spoils” system got way out of hand and a President was assassinated by a jilted office seeker. That hasn’t happened as of late, so at least that part is working. And then there was the case where a certain company made up rules to keep people of a certain skin color from being promoted, but the Supreme Court stated “I don’t think so scooter” and that the requirements for a position have to be job related (ergo Greggs vs Duke Power).

Now, if we say something is broke, we have to have some sort of a comparison to judge by. Most want to compare to the private sector. Well, for those that take the time to talk to job hunters in the private sector about what’s going on, they will find that it could take 3 or 4 interviews (and 4 or 6 months) before they make a decision on who to hire in the private sector. Very seldom do fortune 500 companies hire right on the spot.

Now comes my drive to work at 5:30 AM and listening to the radio. There was one morning when I was on the Belt Way in to work, and the favorite belt way radio station (those in the belt way know the one, that always have the best traffic reporting, especially over on the Virginia side) was talking about how a recent survey showed that managers in the private sector were complaining that over 85% of the time they were not allowed to hire the best person for the job, but rather had to hire relatives, or friends of the bosses, or other people that really weren’t qualified, but had the right connections in the higher echelons of their company. The major complaint was these forced hires usually had a gazillion ghee whiz ideas that were not practical, wouldn’t work, and usually didn’t even involve the core functions of what they were doing. And adding insult to injury, they didn’t work out over 75% of the time and the hiring mangers knew they wouldn’t be able to fire them. So the only hope of getting rid of them before they did too much damage was to get them promoted out of the place, which usually didn’t take much, based upon their “connections”. Is this the way we want the Federal Government to be run? I think the resounding answer is no!

But still, managers want to hire like they perceive the private sector is hiring. They want the ability to hire the person they want right there on the spot. But there is this pesky thing called Merit Principles that keeps getting in the way. I am sure you know it, hire the best person for the job regardless of race, creed, etc. I am sure that we would want to keep the Merit Principles intact. Which with this comes the Rules of Law that go along with protecting the Merit Principles (as if we could change them anyway). Everyone knows that everything we do in Federal HR has a basis in United States Code (i.e. 5 USC, 38 USC, etc.). These are laws that have been passed through Congress and then signed into law by the President. So that is pretty much a requirement that isn’t going to go away.

Now to go to the broke part. HR in the Federal Government has been a “whipping boy” for decades, especially since Al Gore re-invented government and broke up the monopoly that first the CCC (only old timers will remember this one) and then OPM had on it. I can’t even start to tell you how many times I have seen management want to hire someone special before they even announced the position (had to announce it though, you know, those pesky Merit Principles again, open and fair competition does get in the way when you have preselected someone) and blamed HR because their ‘preselected individual” just didn’t score high enough, or do to some other reason, just didn’t make the list. And, it is always HR’s fault in these circumstances, especially when their well laid plans to get around the Merit Principles failed. Is this a case of HR being broke? Not really, Merit Principles were upheld, which is what the Rules of Law require.

Now, about the HR people themselves, and this is with only a meager 10 years in Civilian Government HR in 2 agencies in 3 places, which automatically makes me a minority, since only 40% of the government employees have ever served in more than one agency (and very few move around, usually only the retired military types that have grown used to that way of living). Overall they are competent. Oh, you will find a marginal, or even a substandard one here and there, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule. One comment stated that they should all be certified by SHRM. Well, I don’t subscribe to this. When I was preparing for the SHRM certifications about 10 years ago (after I retired from the Military), I came to the conclusion that SHRM was to focused on the private sector. As a matter of fact, there was nothing about 5 USC in any of their training at the time (not to mention some of the other systems such as the VA’s Title 38). And, the Federal Government HR was so vastly different from the private sector that it is apples and oranges. Of course I didn’t find this out until I had been conned into spending a lot of money. Should have been more leery of how I spent my money. As far as the advanced degrees. There is one thing that I have found, coming from outside the beltway, people in the beltway often confuse intelligence with advanced degrees. Intelligence is what a person has. Advanced degrees is what they can afford. And I have seen many a Dr. with PhD behind their name with very little common sense and are so far removed from what is really going on at the first line of support (if they were ever there to start with), their decisions are ludicrous to the point of macabre.

I do see one area that could be improved. That is all the time spent fulfilling reporting and tracking requirements. And, almost every HR practitioner in the Federal Government will tell you they spend over 30% of their time in reporting/record keeping (ergo, covering themselves on everything they do and then reporting on it). Worse part is, if someone states they want the average hiring time to be 82 days, then the HR people will find some way to make it look like 82 days (even though it isn’t any faster than before, they just make it look that way), and if mid-level management says they are “cooking the books”, well they will be handed an authorization for VERA/VSIP and told to take it. IF there is any part that is broke, it is this part.

So I go back to the original question, Emily, IS HR broke in the Federal Civil Service? The short answer is no. There are some things that can be improved upon, but nothing is really broke. We comply with the laws, work hard, suffer through the fools and ghee whiz idiots, and get the job done, legally.