General Schedule is the ‘single greatest obstacle’ for agency CHCOs, OPM says

The General Schedule is the biggest barrier to recruiting the right talent at the right time, agency chief human capital officers have told the Office of Personnel Management.

Many agencies are advocating for a “comprehensive redesign” of the General Schedule, according to a recent report from OPM, which summarized its findings from a series of human capital reviews with government leaders.

It’s the second report in two weeks from members of the federal community that illustrates difficult challenges and frustrations with the current civil service system.

In a congressionally-mandated report presented to Congress and the White House last month, the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service described civil service personnel systems as needing “urgent attention.”

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OPM spent much of 2019 interviewing agency chief human capital officers about their biggest challenges on everything from recruitment and retention to workforce planning and employee engagement. Though OPM intended to continue these human capital reviews annually, 2020 reviews are canceled to give agencies more time to focus on their own coronavirus responses efforts.

Agencies, as summarized by OPM, described many familiar struggles, but the General Schedule seems to be by far the most daunting barrier.

“Many agencies view the current structure of the General Schedule to be a considerable obstacle when competing with the private sector for new talent and retaining high-performing employees,” OPM said. “Particularly in critical occupational areas, such as IT and cybersecurity, some agencies indicated that salaries are too low to be competitive, even when combined with compensation and benefits.”

Half of agencies said limited budgets prevented them from using existing pay and hiring flexibilities to bring on much-needed cybersecurity talent, according to OPM.

A dozen agencies will ask for special rates for these positions, OPM said, while others are developing their own solutions.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, is drafting a proposal on alternative pay systems for OPM to review.

The Transportation Department is considering whether it will test an alternative pay system or other flexibilities for mission support positions at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

Still, all agencies expressed a desire to revise both the General Schedule and the Senior Executive Service pay systems, according to OPM. A total compensation study of federal pay and benefits has been underway for some time, and OPM is still working on an alternative pay and personnel system for federal economists, the agency said.

Beyond the well-trod challenges with the General Schedule, agencies are making slow progress in closing skills gaps, both through recruiting new talent and reskilling existing employees, OPM said.

“Agencies described an emerging challenge in attracting the right talent for projects and work that is continually changing,” OPM said. “Agencies seek flexible recruiting and hiring options and automated systems that help them search for applicants (potentially in shared databases, such as in the searchable resumes on USAJOBS) and hire more quickly.”

Roughly one-third of agencies said they struggled to strike a balance in filling workforce vacancies with the right mix of new, young talent and experienced employees. A potential wave of upcoming retirements, as well as agencies’ existing diversity and inclusion goals, made this challenge more difficult, OPM said.

Some agencies, however, have developed some promising ideas and tools that are helping them with workforce and succession planning.

The Commerce Department, for example, hosted the federal government’s first-ever summit for “first generation professionals,” which OPM said had allowed agencies to expand the typical diversity and inclusion beyond race, ethnicity to include socioeconomic status.

To better forecast hiring needs and outcomes, the Department of Homeland Security developed in-house software that measures and tracks applicants and their activities through the hiring process. The program, called the Strategic Marketing, Outreach and Recruitment Engagement (SMORE) tool, gives DHS some real-time hiring and workforce analytics, OPM said.

Most agencies have too much human capital data but not enough expertise and capacity to properly manage it, OPM said.

“Most agency leaders track a significant amount of data, but many also struggle to know how to strategically collect and monitor the information in ways they are confident are meaningful,” OPM said. “Many agencies expressed a need for better tools to help manage data collection, analysis and reporting.”

The National Commission on Military, National and Public Service shared many of chief human capital officers’ concerns with the existing federal pay, compensation, hiring and retention systems.

Good government groups, meanwhile, are urging Congress and the president to take those recommendations seriously.

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“From its earliest deliberations the commissioners recognized that the antiquated federal civil service structure is simply unsustainable,” the organizations wrote in an open letter to the president and Congress. “Our government lacks a long-term strategy to retain and attract the brightest minds who can help solve our nation’s biggest problems. At no time has that been more clear than now.”

The Volcker Alliance, National Academy of Public Administration, Partnership for Public Service, Senior Executives Association and Federal Managers Association, were among the organizations who urged action.

As the heroic efforts to respond to the coronavirus show, we all benefit from dedicated, skilled public servants,” the organizations said. “We are not doing enough to retain top talent in government, or to build paths for young people to enter public service.”