Absent civil service reform, agencies scoring small wins on workforce challenges

Agencies are finding ways on their own to hire top talent, reskill existing employees and manage their workforces with more agility, a skill the Trump administr...

Major League Baseball saw a record number of home runs this year. But for government and its efforts to modernize the federal workforce, the balls aren’t quite flying out of the park just yet.

The General Schedule, approaching its 70th birthday this month, hasn’t gotten a serious overhaul. That, for many in the federal community, would be a home run — or more like a grand slam.

For now though, the administration is focused on serving up “singles and doubles,” to use an analogy from Margaret Weichert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.

The Federal Cybersecurity Reskilling Academy, which graduated its first cohort earlier this year but has struggled to place successful students in new positions, is one of those “doubles,” Weichert said.

The limitations of the General Schedule mean that qualified graduates of the reskilling academy, who, for example, may be a GS-12 based on their prior skills and abilities, may not have the qualifications needed to maintain or reach a higher step in cybersecurity.

That same GS-12 with new cyber skills might have to take a job at lower grade level — or leave government altogether for a job in the private sector.

“They have all these skills, and then they’re going to go work for the private sector for a couple years, and then come back, navigate our complex hiring system and then wait for that [security] clearance,” she said. “Like five years will pass, and the skills that they got, that we paid for, might not be relevant anymore. What’s wrong with this picture?”

The Office of Personnel Management is developing a job rotation program to place these graduates. The experience of the reskilling academy has shown the Trump administration just how difficult it is to overcome challenges posed by a 20th century civil service, Weichert said.

“It’s not going to get easier for us to get the best and brightest into government,” she said. “It’s going to get harder.”

That means agencies — absent some sort of sweeping civil service modernization — need to get creative and work within the bounds of the current personnel framework.

“The thing that will be constant is change, and the skills that are critical to responding to change have to do with agility,” Weichert said. “Our human capital structure is not designed to be agile. It’s designed to [be] stable.”

Examples of getting around the framework

Weichert said she sees plenty of examples where agencies have found their way around an outdated civil service framework. They’ve found ways to use the tools they currently have to broaden career opportunities for employees, offer training and reskilling activities and overcome the complex federal hiring system.

The Interior Department, for example, earlier this month launched an automated career path tool on its DOI careers website.

Interior employees, on average, stay with the department for 14 years. Employees want to stay with the agency, but they’re often seeking new or different career opportunities, said Jennifer Ackerman, Interior’s deputy chief human capital officer.

The tool shows possible career paths for 20 mission critical occupations and four “high-density” occupations, more than 50% of the Interior workforce, she said.

“What we wanted to show is how do you get from A to B in a non-linear fashion?” she said. “Sometimes people are intent on [being a] park ranger. They didn’t get there by starting out as just a GS-4. It’s non-linear in a lot of cases.”

The site quizzes employees on their competencies and shows them potential opportunities based on the results. It links back to USAJobs.gov and shows possible detail opportunities within the department.

“This is 1.0. Eventually we want to get to … 11.0,” Ackerman said. “The first day that we launched it, we had over 9,000 hits. It was the most hits we had in over two years on DOI Careers.”

Interior launched the career mapping tool after conducting a “values survey” of its employees. Feedback showed Interior employees placed an especially high value on working in an environment that valued respect — and workplace flexibilities.

The department will also name a “workplace culture adviser,” who will report to the secretary and manage the agency’s response to employee feedback.

The Treasury Department’s chief human capital officer has partnered with the IRS HR shop to purchase data literacy and digital readiness training for all employees.

“We manage our lives in a much different way than we manage our work,” said Trevor Norris, Treasury’s chief human capital officer. “When we start reaching these people who are currently in school and who come to us with the expectation that they will be given tools to conduct their work in the same way that they live their lives, we fall far short of that today.”

And many agency leaders from the National Institutes of Health to the Government Accountability Office are traveling to colleges and universities around the country to meet with students and tell them about the kinds of jobs they could have in government.

A team of executives throughout the Department of Health and Human Services are traveling to historically black colleges and universities to hold these sessions, said Camille Hoover, executive officer for NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

“We are hand-walking them through … the Pathways [Program],” she said. “How do you write your resume? Why is it important to be [in] public service? We talk about all of the different agencies that we have. We’ve only done four of these, but we are doing more and more every month. It’s grassroots. It’s not at the high level, but it’s taking the tools that we have today and doing everything we can to bring in the bright, young people for the future.”

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