DHS wants to lead the way on civil service reform

A congressional authority to hire 1,000 new cybersecurity professionals is prompting the Homeland Security Department, along with the Defense Department and Off...

The future of civil service personnel and pay reform could stem from the Homeland Security Department. In partnership with the Defense Department and Office of Personnel Management, DHS is looking at non-traditional ways it can implement agency-specific hiring authorities for new cybersecurity professionals.

Congress approved authorities for DHS in 2014 and DoD in 2015. OPM last November gave DHS the final green light to fill as many as 1,000 cyber positions.

The ideas these agencies develop could serve as a potential model for broader changes, said Angela Bailey, DHS chief human capital officer.

“What they actually gave us is the ability to create — from scratch — an entirely new personnel and pay system,” she said April 14 at an AFCEA DC’s monthly breakfast in Arlington. “It might actually be our opportunity to create the civil service reform that the government’s been talking about and thinking about.”

The future, Bailey said, might not include traditional benefits familiar to current federal employees.

“Maybe it’s not a defined benefits package,” she said. “Maybe it’s a total rewards package where you negotiate your benefits depending on where you are in your life’s stage. Maybe it’s things like a passport, where you come into the government and then you go back out into industry and then you come back into government. It’s an easy flow of back and forth, because your work is going project-based. It’s not going to be this 30, 35-year defined career.”

Better pay isn’t the only answer to agencies’ recruitment problems, said Bailey, who mentioned everything from adding child care subsidies and sabbaticals to incentive pay for employees who maintain cyber credentials as possible non-traditional ideas.

The goal is that these benefits would bring a crop of younger talent to the federal workforce, where the average age of current employees is on the rise, she said. The average age of a new hire to government is 33.

Agencies have dozens of ways — 164 authorities by some counts — to hire new people. Rather than using the one or two authorities HR specialists learned 20 years ago, Bailey said DHS is making a conscious effort to use more of them.

“Let’s actually start making use of all of those,” she said. “You’re going to see more of that from DHS immediately. Not in the near future, but immediately.”

DHS is in active recruitment mode, a message that Bailey and other members of the department’s executive suite mentioned several times.

“Federal service is great; I invite you to join us,” Soraya Correa, the department’s chief procurement officer, said. “35 years in and I love it. I can’t think of what I want to do next. We’re looking for a few good people, right?”

Recruiting and retaining talent is one of the four major departmental priorities tied to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson’s Unity of Effort initiative. And the department’s C-suite is taking a similar, holistic approach to tackle DHS priorities.

“We’re a department of stovepipes,” said Chip Fulghum, DHS deputy undersecretary for management and chief financial officer. “We had a lot of stovepipes, and [Secretary Johnson] wanted to begin to break those down, because together we’re way better than we are individually.”

“When we looked at management, we saw some of the same things,” he added. “While management was doing very good things across the board, we too were stovepipes.”

The department is now taking the same unified effort to examine the federal hiring process as it’s in the middle of a “race for cyber talent,” Fulghum said.

“We have to understand who we’re trying to recruit and what their needs are so we can better go after them, particularly as it relates cyber,” he said. “When you look at the hiring process, it’s linked to the budget process. It’s also linked to the security clearance process. We have undertaken some very practical things to reduce that timeline.”

DHS human resources specialists are sitting down with subject matter experts within the CIO office to write better job announcements and discuss ways they can use social media to recruit new talent, Bailey said.

Fulghum said the department is also resisting the urge to cut training opportunities, as well as other internship and fellowship programs.

The department expanded its Acquisition Professionals Career Program three years ago to include other acquisition fields, Correa said.

DHS is also working with OPM to develop a cybersecurity track to the President’s Management Fellowship program, an acknowledgement that hiring more cyber talent means creating a stronger pipeline to federal service.

“We’re not doing anything really new,” Correa said. “We’re just using the authorities that are already out there. We’re actually saying, let’s peel back that onion and make sure that we’ve used every flexibility that’s out there.”

But even through the mountains of regulations buried in Title 5, the basic law still asks that agencies hire from all segments of society, Bailey said.

“That’s exactly what we’re doing,” she said. “That’s what Chip has charged me to do, is peel that all back and get back to the basics and start hiring people.”

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