The noble work of the HR professional in government: Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the CHCO Council

To the CHCO community, congratulations for leaning in on strengthening human capital management in the federal government. The HR profession and public service ...

Twenty years ago, in the wake of one of our nation’s greatest tragedies, the attacks of 9/11, Congress and the administration enacted a sweeping new law designed to bolster the nation’s preparedness for and protection from another similar attack. Tucked inside the Homeland Security Act of 2002, though, was another bill also aimed at strengthening the government’s infrastructure: the Chief Human Capital Officers Act. The law established CHCOs in each department and agency and charged them with “selecting, developing, training and managing a high-quality, productive workforce.” At this significant milestone, it is important to reflect on all that’s been accomplished, as well as what more needs to be done.

Since enactment, departments and agencies have appointed CHCOs and constructed organizations to support their critical recruitment and retention missions. A number of significant human capital reform initiatives have been launched and implemented. And a Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey was developed to gauge employee satisfaction and engagement across government. An offshoot of this important data collection effort, of course, is the Partnership for Public Service’s annual Best Places to Work in Government report, which brings critical attention to the need to strengthen employee engagement.

At a small celebration recently at the Office of Personnel Management’s Theodore Roosevelt Building, OPM Director Kiran Ahuja pointed to some significant recent CHCO accomplishments, including:

  • Reviewing the state of the HR workforce, benchmarking leading practices for HR workforce development inside and outside of government, and making plans to pilot an updated HR career path model;
  • Launching an HR career growth platform intended to connect HR practitioners with career development resources, training materials, and ideas and data analytics that will help them grow in their federal careers; and
  • Posting multi-agency pooled hiring actions for HR specialists and providing centralized training and development for these cohorts in order to strengthen the HR workforce, overall.

CHCO Council Executive Director Margot Conrad got in on the action by listing some specific, recent achievements, including:

  • Participating in a hiring fair to jumpstart needed hiring under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which resulted in nearly 1,000 applicants and 246 offers; and
  • Hiring more than 5,000 federal employees to implement the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The Chief Human Capital Officers Act brought needed governance and attention to the importance of personnel management. Our government’s public servants are its most important resource and recruiting and retaining top talent is what will determine government’s success in the future. Lest we take our eyes off the ball, we should reflect on the demands CHCOs will face in the future.

Despite significant progress over the last 20 years, human capital management remains on the Government Accountability Office’s biennial list of areas it sees as high-risk or vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement. GAO lauded the administration’s renewed commitment to strengthening human capital management, including having a confirmed OPM director and featuring the issue in the forefront of the President’s Management Agenda.

GAO also highlighted remaining weaknesses. Federal human resource staff don’t have all the skills they need to conduct workforce planning. Too many agencies, including OPM, lack adequate plans to fill skill gaps in their workforces. Plans with milestones to track progress and demonstrated improvement are also lacking. As GAO wrote, “Mission-critical skills gaps specific to federal agencies and across the federal workforce pose a high risk to the nation. They impede the government from cost effectively serving the public and achieving desired results.”

We’ve seen this important area of management focus evolve over the last two decades. We are rooting for CHCOs and the CHCO Council’s success over the next 20 years or sooner. They perform a critical mission. In citing the “sizeable percentage of the federal workforce eligible to retire,” OMB reminds us that “[r]eplacing the valuable contributions and skillsets of retiring public servants will be a challenge.” And though employee engagement has increased across government — it’s risen from 63% in 2014 to 72% in 2020 — focusing on improving satisfaction more significantly is necessary to bolster recruitment and retention.

GAO offers an important roadmap for addressing longstanding human capital management challenges. Sustained, public leadership attention, including featuring the issue in the PMA, are essential to achieving lasting success in this area. We are confident improvements will be evident as a result of these efforts and focus.

To the CHCO community, congratulations for leaning in on strengthening human capital management in the federal government. The HR profession and public service are better for your sustained efforts. Enabling better recruitment and retention of the workforce America deserves is as noble a mission as there is. But we shouldn’t wait another 20 years to get there.

LaJuanna Russell is founder and CEO of Business Management Associates, which provides human capital management, process transformation, and technology consulting services to government agencies. Robert Shea is CEO of GovNavigators and former associate director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.

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