Your most important customer is your employee

It isn’t often you’ll hear from a federal senior executive that they got it wrong. But I’m here to tell you that I did – and why it matters to you. My story is your story: I needed to solve the talent crisis in government and find better ways to bring in the best people and keep them. How else can we accomplish the government’s mission, if we can’t attract and retain skilled talent?

For two decades, federal agencies have applied the Human Capital Framework (HCF), mandated by law and regulated by the Office of Personnel Management. The HCF requires agencies to align talent management to mission requirements, and to use “analysis, planning, investment and measurement” to continuously improve the workforce-related strategic outcomes required by the agency’s mission.

I led the team that wrote the HCF, and while it was considered a breakthrough at the time, I now realize we got it wrong. The HCF starts and ends with organizational needs, driving top-down alignment from organizational outcomes to workforce planning, holding leaders and managers accountable for talent management measures defined from above, and seeking to put human capital leaders at the leadership table where the agency’s organizational decisions happen. This was an important interim step from HR-as-operations to Strategic Human Capital Management as integral to agency mission accomplishment. But we stopped there, never evolving with the rest of the world toward a deeper understanding of talent management as inherently about solving everyday human problems navigating large, complex systems to accomplish personal goals.

The irony is that at the same time we were updating the HCF during the mid-2010s, I was also establishing the Innovation Lab at OPM, which I now recognize was far more effective at creating the workplace experiences that will attract and retain the talent our government needs so desperately. The Innovation Lab was designed to spark and sustain creativity and innovation in government, by teaching Federal employees the discipline and tools of human centered design (HCD). The President’s Executive Order on Customer Experience defines HCD as “an interdisciplinary methodology of putting people, including those who will use or be impacted by what one creates, at the center of any process to solve challenging problems.” And the EO drives federal agencies to adopt HCD for the mission-critical work of “designing and delivering services with a focus on the actual experience of the people whom it is meant to serve.”

The CX movement in government is all about improving agencies’ performance by taking a human-centered approach to their work. And since federal employees are the people who do that work, it is imperative to apply that same discipline to human capital strategy and operations. The President’s EO gives us a framework and inspiration to act.

1.  Listen to understand what employees want and need, and why 

Part of the transformative power of HCD is that it flips traditional approaches to organizational management on their head. Instead of inside-out thinking – what can we as an organization do, how can we best deliver it, where can we find efficiencies to save resources – it provides an outside-in approach. What do people really need, and why? What do they really want, and to what extent are they getting it? When they interact with us, what do they experience, and how can we reshape ourselves to meet their expectations?

This outside-in approach requires that first, critical step of listening to the people we serve — in our case, federal employees. And listening to truly understand with empathy, so we can rethink how we are showing up for them. An example of how powerful listening can be is Qualtrics’ new study of the perceptions current students and recent graduates have about federal employment. By asking the “why” behind the “what,” we were able to uncover an unexpected finding: early career talent, critical for building the next generation of federal employees, isn’t applying to federal jobs because they don’t believe they are qualified. This is particularly true for students from minority groups. And the fix is deceptively simple: rewrite job announcements to focus on required skills, not degrees or years of experience.

 2. Map the current employee journey

Once we commit to listening, now we can start to understand what experiences our current and future employees are having and where the gaps are. The EO calls for “systematically identifying and resolving the root causes of . . . experience challenges, regardless of whether the source of such challenges is statutory, regulatory, budgetary, technological, or process-based.” Applying this approach to our employees empowers us to take better control of their experience by identifying the key moments that matter in their work lives, and purposefully designing for their needs, and not just the organization’s rules and requirements. The resulting employee journey map might look something like this:

Graphic by Qualtrics

Analyzing these touchpoints, and the correlations across them, would show that we need to design way beyond traditional HR operational constructs. Instead, we need to understand the truly human dimensions of employees’ work lives, like how people’s interactions as customers influence their interest in joining federal service, or how technology experiences affect their willingness and ability to contribute above and beyond the minimum effort required.

3. Take immediate action with employees to test new strategies

The most important step agencies can take to institutionalize a human centered approach to talent management is to collaborate with employees to design an employee experience that will retain and engage them. Co-creation is a fundamental principle of HCD, which has demonstrated repeatedly that including the people we’re designing for during the prototype-test-iterate process reaps significant benefits. Not only does it significantly reduce the risk of deploying tools and processes that don’t meet people’s needs, but it increases adoption and can even reduce costs. Employees know how to save time by reducing unnecessary steps, and incorporating their feedback from the beginning can prevent deployment failures that require reinvestment to fix poor designs.

Government, of all employers, must embrace these principles of HCD and CX, in order to create a workplace that is “of the people, for the people, by the people.”

Dr. Sydney Heimbrock is Chief Industry Advisor for Government at Qualtrics, where she uses her global experience transforming governments through investments in workforce development and policy reform to help federal, state and local government organizations design experiences that build public trust. 


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