Report from Partnership for Public Service in Partnership with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council
Building a federal HR Workforce for the 21st Century
Report from an Action Planning Dialogue at the
CHCO Council Fall Innovation Forum
September 30, 2010
For a number of years now, leaders in the federal Human Resources (HR) community, including the government’s Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCOs), have been in agreement on the need to take action to address a pressing issue affecting not only the HR community itself but ultimately the whole of government. That issue is the fact that far too many of the approximately 26,000 federal HR professionals in government do not have the full range of competencies they need to help their departments and agencies meet the larger workforce challenges that lie ahead. As budgetary pressures mount along with calls for increased workforce efficiencies, an HR workforce capable of being a full and effective partner with agency management is essential.
Unfortunately, while there has long been agreement on the need to take action to build a federal HR workforce for the future, there has not been clear agreement on exactly what actions should be taken and by whom. To help in this regard, the CHCO Council decided to devote a significant amount of time to this issue at its 2nd Annual Fall Innovation Forum in St. Michaels, Maryland. Accordingly, on September 30, 2010, the Partnership for Public Service was asked to facilitate an “action planning” dialogue among the participants at the Forum to discuss actions that should be taken to address the agreed upon need. This report summarizes the result of that conversation.
To provide a structure to the discussion at the Forum, the approximately 40 participants were divided into five small groups with a Partnership facilitator assigned to each group. While each group was free to have a wide-ranging conversation on what it would take to build the federal HR workforce that is needed, each was asked to begin the conversation by addressing one of five different questions, as follows:
- Assuring Individual HR Staff Competencies: What HR competencies are needed; how do we know if an individual possesses them; and what is the best approach to ensuring they are developed?
- Filling the HR Talent Pipeline: How do we ensure the right talent is applying and being selected for the federal HR workforce; what are the best sources of talent; and what assessment tools are most effective for selecting HR professionals?
- Professional Development: How should the HR University initiative be structured to best meet the needs of the HR community? What else needs to be done to provide for the professional growth of the current federal HR workforce?
- Cross-Agency and Cross-Organization Collaboration: Who outside of the federal HR community and individual agencies needs to be involved to ensure that real progress is being made in building the HR workforce of the future?
- Accountability: How should we hold organizations accountable for obtaining, developing, and retaining the HR talent they need; and how do we hold individual HR staff accountable for developing and maintaining the competencies they need?
Note: Although there were five separate discussion groups, all of the groups had a wide ranging conversation that covered many of the same sub-issues, such as HR certification programs. Consequently, the following is a synthesis of the comments and the consensus reached among all of the groups. It starts with a shared vision for the federal HR office – and the federal HR professional -- of the future.
The Future Federal HR Office & HR Professional
Generalists vs. Specialists: The CHCOs readily agreed that there is a need for more than one HR career path. More specifically, the future federal HR office will need generalists with proficiency in all areas and a specialist model where staff would be expected to develop in-depth expertise in a particular area of federal HR. This is analogous to the medical profession wherein there is a need for a general practitioner to diagnose a condition and either treat it or refer the patient to a specialist if the condition warrants a more complex procedure or further diagnosis. In addition, there will still be a need for individuals who focus on the transactional aspect of the job such as processing personnel actions. Nor does this staff need to be co-located. A number of federal organizations have successfully centralized or even outsourced their transactional work while keeping other HR staff closer to their customers.
Diversity of knowledge and experience among the HR staff is also seen as key. While there will still be room for some HR professionals to be “home grown” in the sense of spending much if not most of their career in one agency or organization, increasingly HR leaders will look for staff with different backgrounds, experiences, skills and abilities. In addition to experience in more than one agency or organization, individuals with experience in more than one discipline (such as finance or program management) will be sought as organizations look for HR advisors and leaders with the ability to think strategically. The days when significant numbers of new entrants to HR specialist positions are individuals who start in clerical or HR assistant roles are seen as largely over.
Values and Environment: The CHCOs and Deputy CHCOs also predict that the future federal HR office will be one in which decisions and actions are guided by the core merit system principles rather than the detailed rules and procedures that are intended to help but sometimes actually impede implementation of the principles. This will be made possible by having HR professionals in those offices who understand that their ultimate customer is the department or agency in which they work and who also have a good understanding of the “business” or mission of their organization. The compass that will guide the actions and decision making of the future HR professional will be whether a particular course of action will enhance the operational effectiveness of the organization and its ability to serve the American public.
It was also suggested that a “profiles in courage” initiative is needed to celebrate federal HR professionals who do the “right thing” in keeping with effective HR management even if they are pressured to do something else. The “right thing” in this context is not blind adherence to an ill-conceived or outdated HR policy or practice or simple acquiescence to a manager’s potentially ill-advised request. Instead, the effective federal HR professional gains an understanding of the legitimate outcome desired and strives to achieve that outcome without violating law or regulation and while adhering to broad public policy goals such as providing for veterans preference and diversity. Effective HR professionals need to have the freedom and courage – and the competencies needed -- to carry out their jobs with responsible risk taking and a willingness to be held accountable for results.
Assuring Individual HR Staff Competencies
Competency Models: While there is general agreement that the various HR competency models that have been developed are potentially useful when undertaking a high-level workforce planning review or determining overall HR training and development needs, a majority of the discussants also acknowledged that they did not make reference to the models in their day to day management of their HR workforce and, in fact, would be hard pressed to even articulate what the current model(s) are.
The point was made that the HR community does not need to spend any more time developing or refining the existing models since the community now has a good sense of the competencies needed in individual HR jobs. One CHCO, however, did suggest that it would be useful to ask the managers who receive HR services whether they believe their servicing HR professionals demonstrate the lack of any particular competency. Overall, there was agreement that level of a federal HR position being filled largely determined the skills and competencies sought. For example:
Entry Level HR Positions: The focus should be on the candidates’ individual attributes since possession of specific federal HR knowledge or skills are not required. Among the attributes seen as most useful are the following:
- Writing and analytical skills
- Basic intelligence and intellectual curiosity
- Passion for public service and interest in the HR career field
- Motivation, energy, and self-confidence
Mid-Level HR Positions: In addition to the attributes possessed at the entry level, mid-level, HR professionals should also possess:
- Basic HR knowledge (federal law, regulation, and operating guidelines).
- A good, practical understanding of effective HR policy and practice in all HR-related areas, such as staffing, position classification, compensation, employee and labor relations, and training & development.
Senior Level HR Positions: At this level, and in addition to the competencies possessed by mid-level HR professionals, senior HR professionals should:
- Understand and be able to communicate to others that the “customer” of an effective HR program is the agency and, ultimately, the American public.
- Be able to work effectively with individual managers and other central management staff (e.g., budget, IT, procurement) to design HR policies, programs, and courses of action that result in a workforce that effectively and efficiently carries out the mission of the agency.
- Possess a good working knowledge of workforce/succession planning.
Developing and Communicating the Business Case for HR
The CHCOs also agreed that a competency needed for the HR community as a whole is the ability to develop and present to agency and government leaders the business case for effective HR management. That business case must be integrated into agency strategic plans and able to demonstrate the connection between a strong, capable HR workforce and effective mission accomplishment. Making the business case will require clarity on who is accountable for specific outcomes and how success or lack of success will be tracked. There were two auxiliary thoughts offered in this regard:
1. Training or guidance on developing and communicating the business case for HR (e.g., what metrics are most useful) would be useful; and
2. OPM should take the lead in developing the government-wide business case and the CHCOs and senior HR community should then work together to communicate the business imperative and value of HR.
Filling the HR Talent Pipeline
Government-wide HR Intern Program: While recognizing that there can be multiple entry points into the federal HR “pipeline,” a consensus among the group was that the first priority should be the development and implementation of a government-wide HR intern program that is actively supported and funded by the agencies. Key elements of the program include:
- Entry into the program would be based on an assessment of the individual attributes and competencies outlined under “entry level HR positions” above and also focused on identifying individuals with a specific interest in the HR career field.
- Based on an understanding of what graduating students and other new entrants to the job market are seeking in an employer and in a job, a recruitment strategy and the job itself should be designed to address those needs and interests to the extent possible.
- Some suggested that multiple federal agencies could work together as a federal government “team” to recruit highly qualified candidates with an active interest in the HR career field into the HR intern program. CHCOs or other senior HR staff should be personally involved in these recruitment efforts to provide a face for federal HR.
- Some also suggested using the Presidential Management Fellows program or a similar excepted service hiring authority as the appointment authority for the HR intern program.
- The internship itself should include a specific focus on developing an understanding of the business of the customer; the importance of quality human capital management to mission success; development of strategic human capital plans and priorities; political savvy; and the need to remain within the boundaries of law, regulation, and accepted standards of professional responsibility.
- Interns should be given hands on exposure to multiple jobs or roles within HR through the use of rotational assignments and even interagency details.
HR University: Most of the CHCO Council members were aware that an effort was underway to create an HR University, but all felt there needed to be increased communication from the HRU workgroup to all of the federal agencies regarding what they are doing and to provide them with progress updates. As one CHCO noted, “Marketing of the HR University is critical and it needs to begin now to ensure that agencies commit funding to support this initiative.”
The belief is that the HR University (HRU) work group has made good progress, but is still in the beginning stages of development. And although there was much appreciation for the efforts of this group, it was not clear that a good business plan had been developed that would engender support and funding from OMB and Congress.
The CHCOs felt that the HRU activities should be consolidated under an independent entity (probably within OPM) and that a dedicated source of funding should be sought to support the initiative. It was suggested that perhaps HRU could be included as a “rider” in one agency’s budget requests (for example, DOD, VA, DHS, Justice). It was also suggested that the structure of the Defense Acquisition University and the Federal Acquisition Institute (for civilian agencies) would be useful models to explore in greater detail.
The majority of the CHCOs also thought that pre-testing should occur to determine employees’ current knowledge level and to allow those that scored sufficiently high to “test out” of a particular training class. Along those same lines, the CHCOs felt that it made sense to require a passing grade on scenario type post-tests to help to ensure that the attendees actually gained the required knowledge and can utilize that knowledge in specific situations.
Several of the discussion groups suggested that there be a mentoring component to HR training and development, and that the government should consider using retirees from the federal HR profession to serve as mentors.
Finally, there was discussion about the value of having a dedicated head or President of the HRU who would be responsible for raising the awareness of the program: acquiring funding, coordinating among the different training providers; overseeing the development of the overall curriculum and any related certification requirements; ensuring the pre and post-training tests are valid and reliable; and acting as COTR on contracts with training providers.
HR Certifications: An HR certification process/requirement was discussed with mixed reactions. Although desired and accepted in principle, it was also noted that successful completion of a certification requirement was still not a guarantee of an individual HR professional’s future success. Examples were given of individuals who had achieved a certification, such as that available from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), but who still were marginal performers. For some, this simply indicated that certification is necessary but not alone sufficient to ensure the quality level of federal HR staff. For others, this argued for a clearly specific “federal government” HR certification program.
A number of CHCOs also made the connection between the proposed HR University that offers targeted curriculums leading to formal certifications at various levels for both generalist and specialists in federal HR. There was broad agreement that the HRU work group should consider using the Federal Acquisition Certification program as a model.
Development of a federal HR certification process from scratch was discussed but it was acknowledged that developing such a program could be an arduous and time consuming task. An alternative offered was more wide-spread use of existing external certification programs such as that offered by SHRM or the International Public Management Association for HR (IPMA-HR) as long as they also provide and measure knowledge of the unique federal HR environment, for example, familiarity with the requirements of title 5, U.S.C. and broad federal HR policies and programs. As part of any certification program, however, it was agreed that the participating HR staff should be tested on their knowledge of HR fundamentals.
Overall, there was consensus that a widely accepted HR certification program that would establish consistent competencies and standards for federal HR staff would be valuable. While achieving certification would not guarantee advancement or a high performance appraisal for any one individual, it was agreed that it could raise the visibility of the human resource/human capital career field as a “profession.” One CHCO suggested that they could show support for such an approach and provide an incentive to individuals by noting on job announcements that individuals with HR certification would be “preferred or desired.”
Cross-Agency & Cross-Occupation Collaboration
Shadow HR staff: The groups discussed who outside of the federal HR community needs to be involved in re-building the federal HR workforce. In this context, the issue of “shadow” HR staff arose. An individual was considered to be part of a “shadow” staff if they worked outside of the formal HR office structure – typically as part of the administrative staff for an operating unit – but their duties and responsibilities mimic and sometimes duplicate those assigned to formal HR staff members. Some of the discussants believed that shadow staffs exist only because agency business units do not believe they receive the support and service they need form their HR staffs.
There were differing opinions as to whether shadow staffs should be eliminated or transferred to HR offices. One opposing point of view was that perhaps more HR staff members should be assigned to the business units they serve to promote better understanding of and alignment to the mission. Other CHCOs felt that there would be no need for shadow staffs if the HR workforce acquires and applies the skills and knowledge needed to provide first-rate HR service. There was consensus, however, that success in increasing the skills and knowledge of the HR workforce may reduce the need for shadow HR staffs.
Congress: The CHCO’s also expressed a desire for support from Congress that is similar to that provided to the federal acquisition workforce once it became clear that an investment in the improvement of that workforce was needed in order to achieve much needed improvements in contracting and acquisition outcomes. The CHCO’s acknowledged that they will need to convincingly make the business case that investing in the skills and abilities of the HR workforce will similarly provide a return on investment in improved agency operations.
The desired investment from Congress would include funding, perhaps to OPM, to develop better assessment tools for use in selecting new HR staff or in better determining the skill level of current HR staff. In a similar vein, the discussants also desired Congressional support for development of a government-wide HR intern program and for an update of the qualification requirements for HR professionals to provide more emphasis on the strategic skills needed.
OMB and OPM: The CHCOs also thought that it would be very useful for OMB to provide broad management direction for federal HR workforce improvement similar to what they provided for the federal acquisition workforce improvement. The ability of a central management agency to leverage resources across all agencies to eliminate redundancies was seen as particular valuable in this context. It was understood that both OPM and OMB should logically partner on efforts to make improvement of the HR workforce a priority and a reality.
The CHCOs would like OMB to involve them in developing budget guidance in advance of a budget call. Earlier involvement would help the CHCOs understand the rationale and shape the request to ensure that it is both actively supported by the federal HR community and that it is capable of achieving the intended outcomes. It was also noted that there have been instances where federal employee unions were informed or consulted before the CHCOs on matters involving OMB guidance to agencies on HR matters.
The CHCOs expressed a willingness to serve as a resource for OMB, particularly when OMB does not have enough experienced staff in HR-related topic areas. They also thought it would be useful to both the CHCO’s and OMB if the “no substitutes” rule for the President’s Management Council was eased. Several CHCO’s noted that they were hampered by lack of information and understanding because Deputies were not allowed to attend a meeting in place of a principal.
Finally, the CHCOs felt that when OPM is preparing to launch a new HR initiative, they would be well served to get agencies (large and small) “on board” prior to the launch, and to expand their facilitation activities across the federal government (as they have done within the CHCO Council).
Other Senior Leaders: The CHCOs expressed an interest in finding ways to gain the active support of agency heads, political appointees, and other C-suite executives in efforts to rebuild or improve the federal HR workforce. It was observed, for example, that the agencies that tend to be at the top of the Best Places to Work rankings also tend to have strong HR functions and CHCOs who are not only fully integrated into the top leadership team but who also receive excellent support from their CFO and CIO staffs.
The CHCOs also believe that it would be helpful to meet with Unions at the national level to gain their support. They also suggested outreach to professional organizations, particularly SHRM and IPMA-HR who are natural advocates for the HR profession.
Interagency Collaboration: The CHCO’s thought that there was still much that could be shared across agency lines within the HR community itself. For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs has developed a substantive HR training program for VA HR staff and they are willing to offer any vacant slots for specific sessions to HR staff from other agencies. Developing a systematic way to publicize opportunities like this throughout the HR community would provide a valuable service.
Other suggestions for cross-agency sharing included thinking innovatively about ways for the CHCO Council itself to better leverage knowledge sharing; partnering with multiple agencies on formal HR training opportunities; cross-agency details or exchanges of HR staff for developmental purposes; and holding periodic “best practices” forums hosted by various agencies recognized for their innovative work or success in a particular area of HR.
HR metrics: The CHCOs noted that there is value in tracking specific HR metrics (in addition to time-to-hire) as a way to hold HR staff accountable for results and to assess overall organizational performance for the HR function. In essence, one of the best ways to determine if an organization has the HR talent it needs is to determine if that staff is producing the results the agency needs.
There was a clear consensus that in order to move from a federal culture where the administrative support areas are often considered as second-tier, second-class organizations, the HR community must demonstrate improvements in not only their own performance but also improvements for the organizations they serve. In this context, building a culture of shared responsibility through the use of interdependence agreements that outline the mutual expectations between line/program offices and HR offices was suggested as a significant step in the right direction.
Other metrics discussed included a follow-up on new hires to determine the “quality” of hires. Customer surveys that assess the quality of HR staff and the service they provide is, by extension, also an assessment of the quality of the approach being used to hire and train that staff. The results of these various accountability audits should then be used to conduct trend analyses to determine if HR service quality is improving or declining.
Other Accountability Measures: Promotion and award data that is tied to HR performance should also be evaluated once a certification program is in place. Other functional areas within HR should be measured, to include time-to-service when assistance is requested to deal with employee performance or conduct problems, time-to-fire, just-in-time training for managers who don’t consistently hire, and use of employee work-life programs. In summary, it was suggested that only through development and use of a range of accountability mechanisms will the CHCO community know if progress is being made in improving HR competence and in building the federal HR workforce needed for the 21st Century.
Suggested Action Items for the CHCO Council:
1. Create a working group that includes representation from the Chief Information Officer (CIO), the Chief Financial Officer (CFO), and the Chief Acquisition Officer (CAO) communities to inform and build a sound business case for improving federal HR programs and operations by improving the overall competencies and capabilities of the federal HR workforce.
2. Develop a plan of action for the improvement of the HR workforce with the designation of individuals who will accept responsibility for ensuring that specific, agreed upon actions are taken within an agreed upon timetable. The plan should include short range and long range goals and measurable targets that will take place over the next three years. Five specific elements in that plan should be:
a. Development of an HR certification program and a panel of champions who will serve as a board of directors to guide its development and implementation.
b. Continued development and integration of the HR University as a key tool for the professional development of the HR workforce. Also leverage the Council to promote knowledge sharing and to provide “second tier training.”
c. Creation of a government-wide HR recognition program to celebrate HR staff members who have provided exemplary and proactive support to agency missions, especially by “doing the right thing” vs. doing that which is most expedient.
d. Establishment of an HR intern program in collaboration with OPM.
e. Development of a model performance management system for HR professionals that more closely ties financial rewards (or the lack thereof) to the attainment of measurable and agreed upon HR goals and objectives – particularly those that are tied to improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of the organization.
3. Create an ongoing forum in which CHCOs or their designees from agencies with “best in class” practices on specific topics (for example, initiatives that substantially improved their “best places to work” scores) can share those practices.
4. Develop model “interdependence agreements” with customers and managers that outline mutual expectations and agreement upon responsibilities between program offices and HR offices. (Note: EPA and the Department of Justice have volunteered to provide a template and NRC also volunteered to provide some input.)
5. Conduct an awareness/education program about the value of quality HR policies, programs, and practices and the need for quality HR staff to enable those policies, programs, and practices.
Suggested Action Items for OPM:
1. On behalf of the federal HR community, the OPM Director can help present the business case for investment in the improvement of the HR workforce to agency heads, OMB, and Congress to solicit their support.
2. Explore different funding models and sources to support HR workforce improvement efforts, particularly with regard to funding for the HR University initiative and development of an HR certification program.
3. Increase communication about the HR University initiative and help develop pre and post assessment vehicles that can be used to measure the effectiveness of the training provided.
4. Facilitate a meeting between federal HR leaders and federal employee union leaders on the topic of the HR workforce to obtain ideas and feedback and, if possible, support.
5. Spearhead development of government-wide accountability metrics for individual HR staff members.
6. In collaboration with OMB and the Chief Information Officers Council, develop a government wide HR Information System that would allow for the collection, sharing of comparative workforce management data and information.
7. Coordinate information sharing among federal agencies when training opportunities are available within a specific agency that has capacity and the willingness to share that opportunity.
8. Champion the development and implementation of a government-wide HR intern program.