Mission and merit systems collide in HR

A recent survey of chief human capital officers reveals some shortcomings and frustrations in the relationship between CHCOs and the Office of Personnel Managem...

By Max Cacas
Federal News Radio

The Office of Personnel Management is trying to address concerns by chief human capital officers that are major hurdles to reach the goal of “building a first-class federal workforce for the government,” including OPM themselves.

OPM received criticism both in the third annual Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton survey of federal chief human capital officers (CHCOs) as well as in the panel discussion of the results.

During the discussion, Jeff Neal, CHCO with the Department of Homeland Security, wished that “OPM’s mission would be supporting our mission,” in terms of helping him recruit and retain staff. He recalled a Capitol Hill meeting to discuss DHS human resource challenges in which an OPM staff member said in relation to that mission, citizens “want to know there’s a merit system, and we’re following merit system principles.” Neal countered that the average American is more concerned that airplanes are crashing into buildings, as happened on Sept. 11.

Kathryn Medina, executive director of the Chief Human Capital Officer’s Council, attended the briefing and heard Neal’s criticism, but chose not to respond directly to his comments in an interview with Federal News Radio.

But Medina’s predecessor running the CHCO Council during the Bush administration, John Salamone, now a senior consultant with Federal Management Partners, said Neal’s frustration with an OPM staff member over his agency’s mission is part of an inevitable tension between mission-driven agencies such as DHS and OPM, which is charged with defending merit system hiring principles.

To back that claim, he said all you have to do is look at one DHS agency in its early days.

He recalled his days as a staff member for Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) when the Congress and the administration were setting up the Transportation Security Agency.

“That agency was asked to hire, train and deploy 50,000 (airport) screeners in one year,” he said. “That is an unbelievably daunting task for a federal agency.”

Salamone added that nine screeners who were hired had criminal backgrounds. In the wake of the controversy over that discovery, Salamone asked if DHS, TSA, or even OPM, in their haste to quickly staff an important agency violated the merit system principle which bans the hiring of known criminals.

Ron Sanders, now with Booz Allen Hamilton and a former CHCO with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the tension between agency mission and OPM’s merit system is a natural thing.

“I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive,” he said. “I think you can support the mission and support merit system principles at the same time.”

He described the relationship and resulting tension between OPM and agencies as “dynamic” and “healthy.”

Another issue addressed in the Partnership study deals with CHCO concerns that some of the HR workforce isn’t adequately equipped to handle the rigors of revamping the hiring system.

To that end, Medina said OPM is partnering with the CHCO Council to put the finishing touches on a joint initiative called HR University.

“The CHCO Council is leading this because they feel there is a gap between the needs of the current HR profession, and the current skills and capabilities of the HR workforce,” she said. “This is not something new, I’ve read many reports on this over the years, the CHCO Council has discussed this for quite a while, and this year we decided to put it front and center.”

The HR University, which is modeled upon training programs initiated by the Chief Financial Officers Council, and the Chief Information Officers Council, is expected to tap into the best practices of the agencies which already are successful at hiring and training capable human resource staff.

“What we’re talking about is developing a framework that addresses what we feel are the core competencies of the HR profession in the federal workforce,” she said.

Medina said the CHCO Council hopes to have more details on how the HR University will operate in the context of resolving this issue surrounding the HR workforce before the end of this year.

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