How to maintain training in tight budget times

Tuesday - 8/6/2013, 3:04pm EDT

ICF International Senior Vice President Jeff Neal

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Young Government Leaders President Virginia Hill

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In tight fiscal times, travel and training budgets often seem to be marked with a big red target by cost-conscious agency leaders.

"People tell you all the time that people are their most important resource," said Jeff Neal, senior vice president at ICF International, in an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose. "So, what's the first thing they cut? They cut the thing that is their biggest investment in people — and that's the training."

To deal with the governmentwide spending cuts known as sequestration, the Office of Management and Budget called on agencies to scrutinize their travel and training budgets. Since the cuts went into effect March 1, many agencies have slashed spending on those areas.

But there are strategies chief human capital officers and chief learning officers can deploy to shield their training budgets from cuts, said Neal, the former CHCO at the Homeland Security Department.

Build support for your programs, get leadership buy-in

For one, CHCOs and CLOs need to build support for their programs and get buy-in from the top of the organizational chart, he said.

"If you really want to get support for training, it has to be something that's not just a product of the chief learning officer or the chief human capital officer," Neal said. "It really needs to be something where other people in the organization are actively fighting for that training."

Perhaps most important for training directors is to get your agency's chief financial officer — who has a great amount of authority over your agency's purse strings — on your side.

"When you look at these budget-cutting drills, a lot of times the budget decisions end up being the head of the agency and the CFO sitting in a room together and having a discussion about what's going to make it into the final budget and what's going to be cut," Neal said. "And if the CFO doesn't see what you've got as a meaningful, viable program that actually adds value [and] actually supports the mission, they're going to vote to kill it. And if the CFO votes to kill it, you're in trouble."

Training directors should also be explicit about what their training budget actually funds.

"It's really easy to cut generic training, because you don't really know what it is," Neal said. "You don't know what you're getting for it; you think it might be people going off to conferences that are boondoggles ... If what you've got is a budget, though, for training acquisition personnel, do you really want to stop training your acquisition folks? If it's training for border patrol officers, do you really want untrained border patrol officers?"

(Click here for the full list of ways to maintain agency training budgets compiled by Neal on his blog ChiefHRO.com.)

Hiring tools a hidden training resource

Even though budgets across government have been tightened, it's important for managers not to let training go by the wayside, said Virginia Hill, president of Young Government Leaders.

"Just because there's scarcity, that's not actually an excuse to relax on the training," she said in a recent In Depth interview. "There are ways that we can be creative to find opportunities to share with other agencies or with other programs so we can maintain a standard of professional development for not only our young feds but for all of our staff."

Luckily, agencies have some readily accessible resources at their disposal, even though they may not recognize them as training tools, such as the Pathways Program.

"With Pathways, not only is it a recruiting tool, but we also need to look at it as a mechanism for training and retaining these young feds," Hill said. "So, it's not just a way to get them in the door ... We have to think about how we're going to train, allow job shadowing, mentoring to get them up to speed and get [past] that learning curve so they're invested in the agency and want to stay."

Gathering data about the effectiveness and success of training is key in these tight budget times, she added, both to justify the existence of the training program and to plot a future course of action.

"Maybe some of that data may be subjective in terms of the value or the overall satisfaction that the person had with the training, but that can still be really important in determining next steps for agencies: whether to continue with that investment or try something new," she said.

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