2015 challenge to agencies: Get the right people for the job

Jobs grew last year at a pace not seen since 1999, the White House boasted last week. Inside federal offices, however, things don’t look so rosy.

The government, excluding the Postal Service, lost 19,100 civilian jobs, in stark contrast to the additions to the private sector, state governments and municipalities, according to Labor Department statistics. Some federal employees may be asking themselves whether now is the time to jump ship and try something new. Jobseekers may have similar thoughts about federal employment.

Panelists included, from left, Federal News Radio’s Emily Kopp; Angela Bailey, chief operating officer of the Office of Personnel Management; Danny Werfel, former Acting IRS Commissioner and now with the Boston Consulting Group; Jeri Buchholz, chief human capital officer of NASA; and Federal Drive host Tom Temin. (Photo by Shefali Kapadia/Federal News Radio)
The numbers underscore the battles agencies face in recruiting and keeping talented employees as the wider economy recovers.

There is a growing recognition that “to get the jobs done in the federal government, we need the right people in place,” said consultant Danny Werfel, who served as the acting IRS commissioner after a scandal in the agency’s tax- exempt division. “The government is challenged from a human capital standpoint along a lot of different measures. Agencies are doing skill-gap assessments to figure out where their needs are and we’re learning more that we do have significant gaps in our skills across agencies.”

In trying to fill those gaps, agencies run into myriad challenges from the recruitment process to making sure employees are happy to come to work every day, he said.

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Werfel joined Angela Bailey, the chief operating officer of the Office of Personnel Management, and Jeri Buchholz, the chief human capital officer of NASA, Friday during a Federal Drive with Tom Temin discussion on federal human capital issues.

When it comes to recruiting, the panelists said, the task is made more difficult by rules and regulations that harken back to an era when agencies tacked job vacancies on bulletin boards and received applications by post.

Those rules are meant to foster open and fair job competition, said Buchholz. “When every person on the planet can see your vacancy announcement, is it really important to do competition in the same way as you did when you used a bulletin board?”

NASA now recruits top scientists for positions designated as senior-level scientific or professional jobs. Hiring for those ST positions lets the agency handpick the experts and offer them more pay than they would receive on the General Schedule. The problem, Buchholz said, is that “few people are hired into those positions and none of them are veterans,” referring to another hiring priority of the Obama administration.

The agency is working with both the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and other science agencies that face similar challenges in filling science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) roles.

Without questioning civil service merit principles, Buchholz says the processes and procedures should get another look.

“Redesigning a modern process that will take us forward into the future, I think, could be important to work on,” she said.

But the system’s creakiness shouldn’t be a signal for Congress to start drafting new bills, said Bailey.

“The most creative people figure out how to take what is currently the system as is. Changing the law may sound like a great idea, but it takes at least four to five years to make that happen,” she said. “Figuring out ways to work within those laws, rules and regulations and examining what you need to do into the future is incredibly important.”

Leaning on special hiring authorities

More managers across the government are leaning on special hiring authorities to choose the people they want for jobs rather than hold open competitions, according to a recent report by the Merit System Protection Board. Agencies find open competitions difficult to manage, the Board concluded.

Bailey does not see the trend toward using hiring authorities as a bad thing, however.

Hiring managers could “sit back and complain about the fact that I can’t get who I want” through the traditional open process, she said. Instead, “Managers are starting to say, ‘Tell me what’s available and then work with me to figure out how I most appropriately use what’s on the books.'”

The labor data, however, suggests agencies are running into that dilemma less and less. Rather than hire new staff, they are turning to “low-cost, highly effective” tactics, like short-term rotations and mentoring programs, to match employees’ skills to the jobs, Werfel said.

Bailey likened it to recent military operations.

“We don’t need these big, lumbering Cold War kinds of things anymore. It’s urban warfare,” she said. “It’s special forces. You get in, get the job done and get out. Agencies are trying to pull in the data and strategies so they can deploy in that kind of manner.”

More agencies should approach their career senior executives in this way, she said.

“It pains me greatly when I often hear that we have to be infused constantly with the private sector, as if current federal SES corps doesn’t have it,” she said.

Deploying senior executives to fix major problems carries risk, however. Congress recently passed a law that lets the Veterans Affairs Department more quickly fire SES members. Some lawmakers have said that they would like to apply the new measure governmentwide.

“What keeps me awake is, if you swing the pendulum and go too far with reform efforts under the umbrella of accountability and you make the SES in such a way that it’s not something that people aspire to do anymore, you harm the federal government,” she said. “In addition, you have to have an environment in which failure is actually accepted.”

An executive corps too afraid to take risks would be bad for the government and the American people, she said.

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