Federal HR in need of attention and resources, Partnership says

Federal employees ranked federal human resources last among four federal administrative services, according to a recent customer satisfaction survey from the Ge...

Agencies lose ground on their quest to find the best talent and meet their increasingly complicated missions when they fail to improve and transform outdated federal human resources, according to a recent report from the Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte.

Several good government organizations have made a similar argument in recent months.

Strengthening federal HR was at the core of the recommendations from the National Academy of Public Administration, which recently concluded a year-long review of the Office of Personnel Management and offered up 23 suggestions for improvement.

The Government Accountability Office pointed to human capital challenges as the root cause behind 22 high-risk designations on its biennial list, which the agency released earlier this year. Federal human capital itself has been on the High-Risk List for two decades, and agencies regressed in that area in recent years, according to GAO.

And in their new report released last week, the Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte made their own case for improving federal HR services within agencies. They spoke with 20 leaders from seven different agencies that are all undergoing some kind of HR transformation.

The report details how agencies have struggled to invest in human capital and collect buy-in from top leaders to prove change is necessary. As a result, many federal employees have a poor or middling impression of their agencies’ HR services and often struggle to recruit top talent, the Partnership said.

As evidence, it pointed to the General Services Administration’s 2020 customer satisfaction survey, where employees at 24 federal agencies gave their HR services a 4.6 out of 7 rating, the lowest among four administrative services.

The Partnership today is hopeful a confluence of emergencies and government response efforts, as well as the start of a new administration, will propel agencies to make real improvements to federal HR.

“While HR is so critical to an agency, that’s not the primary mission.” Don Bauer, chief technology officer for global talent management at the State Department, said during a webinar on the Partnership’s new report. “So if you’re at [Customs and Border Protection] it’s the guns and badges that get the money, or at FBI, the agents get the money. Pick your agency or pick your flavor. They’re the ones that get the resources because that’s the ‘mission,’ and what people fail to realize is that without the support there is no mission. That’s why HR is always getting pushed to the back.”

The State Department is consolidating and centralizing its HR offices, which were previously spread out across the agency’s many bureaus. Bauer said he serves as a kind of an IT advocate specifically for HR.

His team has been using best development and customer experience practices to consolidate and design new applications suited to the department’s HR specialists.

“We have to get in the business of doing IT for HR, not to HR,” Bauer said. “That’s what’s been happening over the years.”

Though the State Department has found some success, some agencies struggle to make their case why senior leadership should devote more time and attention to major federal HR changes.

It’s noticeable at OMB as well, which agencies must approach to ask for funding, said Kristy Daphnis, the governmentwide lead for personnel policy at the Office of Management and Budget.

“At the end of the day, you need to think about how will this project help your agency better deliver its mission? What will the impact be? And can you quantify it?” she said. “I know sometimes it’s really difficult to quantify some of these things. But you really should be thinking about how can you most efficiently and effectively deliver on various aspects of the project.”

Federal HR strategies include diversity and inclusion reviews

For several agencies, their HR strategies will focus on improving diversity and inclusion within their workforces. It’s a major priority for the Biden administration, which issued an executive order in its first days in office that called on agencies to prioritize equity in its programs and services.

“This is a huge priority of this new administration, and there’s a lot of support for really putting in place strategies to enhance diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility,” Daphnis said. “One of the things that’s really important to this administration is making sure that we have a diverse workforce that’s representative of society. We … here at OMB and also at OPM are interested in thinking through the strategic plan for each agency and what those actions items are to take this from where you are now to where we need to be across government. We’ll see a lot more action in that area, both in specific occupations and career fields as well as across the government, over the next several weeks and months.”

With Senate-confirmed leadership now in place, the Interior Department is standing up its executive review board, which plays a key role in the hiring and selection process for the Senior Executive Service.

“We have developed a diversity/recruitment plan to look at barriers for all SES and SL hires,” said Jennifer Ackerman, Interior’s deputy chief human capital officer. “[We’re] working with the EEO offices in each of the bureaus … and [looking at] what are the barriers for recruitment.”

“This will take a little bit more work on the part of our executive resource office and the bureau’s human capital officers, but we wanted to make sure that we are paying attention to the executive orders that are coming out,” she added.

The State Department is conducting a similar barrier analysis as part of a larger effort to improve diversity and inclusion across all aspects of the agency.

“We’re doing a lot of data crunching and munching,” Bauer said. “Where are things breaking down in the process to where we can go back and look at those areas where we can broaden our scope to be more inclusive?”

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