Hiring reforms thriving despite freezes, early outs

Tuesday - 7/2/2013, 6:08am EDT

NASA CHCO Jeri Buchholz discusses hiring reforms with Francis Rose and Jason Miller.

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The Chief Human Capital Officers Council is trying to jump start an effort to further improve how agencies hire new employees across government.

Despite the fact that many agencies face or are under a hiring freeze, the CHCO Council will meet next week to hear recommendations for phase two of the governmentwide effort to improve the hiring process, said Jeri Buchholz, NASA's assistant administrator for human capital management and CHCO.

A new Federal News Radio survey of CHCOs and deputy CHCOs found that most respondents (92 percent) said their agencies are hiring new employees, on average, in 46 to 100 days. The governmentwide goal set by the Obama administration is 80 days.

"It's not just a question of flow, but also in terms of the quality of individuals we bring in to the federal government. We want to make sure those individuals are the very, very best people and well suited to public service. There are some additional areas the CHCO Council is going to be focusing on in the coming year," Buchholz said during an exclusive interview on In-Depth with Francis Rose Monday. "We've gotten a hold of that hiring system and can now use it in a way that best benefits the agency and so it's a lower priority — not because it's unimportant, but because it's not a challenge for us right now."

She added it's important to keep in mind that the many skilled positions the government requires take longer to hire because of the time it takes to find qualified candidates.

Federal News Radio conducted the online survey of federal CHCOs and deputy CHCOs for two weeks in May 2013. The survey received a response rate of 30 percent with respondents split almost evenly between cabinet level agencies, large agencies and small or independent agencies. Additionally, half the respondents were CHCOs and half were deputy CHCOs.

This is the third such CHCO survey conducted by Federal News Radio.

What's working?

All of the survey respondents said hiring reform is working at their agencies.

"Timeliness has improved. An increased focus has been placed on evaluating quality of hires and retention," said one respondent. Another said, "The Office of Personnel Management's plan to take hiring reform to hiring excellence is right on track. It is about the quality of hire, not just the time to hire."

HR areas in which your agency has made the most progress

Initiatives/Rating average (lower score denotes higher ranking)

1

Making the agency workforce more diverse and accepting of differences (3.69)

2

Making my agency's hiring process faster and easier for applicants (4.31)

3

Hiring better-skilled people (4.38)

4

Retaining good employees under a pay freeze and program cuts (4.69)

5

Training HR professionals to do their job better (5.15)

6

Training supervisors across the agency in management skills (5.69)

7

Improving agency-union relations (6.31)

8

Upgrading our HR technology (6.38)

9

Hiring more people (6.38)

10

Reducing our workforce through buyouts, early retirement or other programs (8)

Hiring reform also has helped CHCOs make their agencies more diverse. Respondents were asked to rank the areas where they have made the most progress over the last four years on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the area where the most progress has been made. Diversity and inclusion received the highest average ranking of 3.7. Hiring reform was second with an average ranking of 4.31 and hiring better-skilled people came in third with a ranking of 4.38.

Just more than half of all respondents said their agencies aren't facing a hiring freeze and most of them don't expect to in 2013.

About 39 percent of the respondents said they are under a hiring freeze with 80 percent of them saying it started at least 4 months ago.

Buchholz said NASA isn't under a hiring freeze, but many of her colleagues have used it as a tool to reduce or shift skills across their agencies.

"NASA has been bringing down our headcount for a couple of years now as result of the end of the shuttle program, so we were already on a good down slope to what's going to be our steady state number," she said. "When sequestration and some of the other things hit this year, we were already postured for a lowered headcount so we didn't have to put a headcount in place."

Pathways getting traction

Buchholz said agencies are pretty good about hiring early career and late-career employees, but struggle with the mid-career folks. She said the goal is to have a recruitment strategy so there are peaks and valleys in the makeup and experience of the staff.

"Those different populations of people require different recruitment and hiring approaches, so having a plan that covers all of those bases helps create that smooth transition from one FTE [full time equivalent] level to another," she said. "There have been some changes in the federal government in terms of early career hiring with the Pathways Program that makes it more obvious and easier to do that kind of advanced planning."

The survey found 77 percent of the respondents are implementing the Pathways internship program.

"It is not hard. It has a few new nuances, but if folks would simply start using it, they would find that the changes will help them bring about a more diverse workforce and is an excellent step in achieving their overall succession goals," said one survey respondent.

Another commented that their agency has begun implementing Pathways, but it's restrictive.

While a new hiring freeze isn't likely for a majority of agencies, another round of buyouts and early outs is expected for many. Just about 70 percent of the survey's respondents said they offered buyouts or early outs last year, while almost 42 percent said they expect their agency to offer this approach to reduce staff size in 2013.

Several respondents said a hiring freeze isn't needed because there is no budget to hire.

The hiring freezes, buyouts and early outs across many agencies were all implemented to help deal with budget cuts and sequestration.

Now that sequestration is upon the government, CHCOs said the biggest impact has been the cuts to training. On a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 being the area most impacted by sequestration, training received an average ranking of 2.33.

CHCOs and deputy CHCOs ranked hiring freeze second with an average of 2.58 and delays in major HR-related projects third with an average ranking of 3.08.

"Cuts to programs that take care of our employees, not just training; positions remaining unfilled equal work not getting accomplished; fewer rotations (bad for employee and leadership development); concern that managers won't address poor performance in fear of losing the position/body," wrote one respondent about the impact sequestration is having on their agency.

Four respondents commented morale is suffering the most because of sequestration.

Delays in NASA HR system updates

Buchholz said NASA has had to delay one major HR project and pause another one.

She said NASA's new staffing system needs to be replaced, but the space agency will put it off for another year until it can figure out its budget. NASA also had to delay its leadership development programs — something the agency is well known for.

"We have really, in the last year, gone very heavily into virtual collaboration and really enhancing the capabilities in agency to collaborate virtually. It's been tremendously helpful to us," she said. "One of the reasons we concluded it was time to pause with our leadership development was we wanted to get that capability more robust. We are looking at a blended model of delivering a component of these programs virtually so the in-person time can be only those things that you need to do when you are gathered together."

Overall, respondents say all of these challenges are putting federal HR departments and employees under undue pressure.

"The use of public servants as a political football affects morale and threatens the ability of agencies to fulfill their missions. Agencies are being forced to make impossible decisions about staffing priorities and the HR practitioners are ill-equipped to address all of the people challenges that are being created by the implementation of sequestration," wrote one respondent.

Another said, "We really need a major civil service reform led by OPM. Many of the practices were developed for a different era and for a different type of federal workforce. OPM still has not taken this on and it is crippling the federal government in our talent management practices! Telework is not the only 'tool' we need. Why do we even pretend that we could be a 'Best Place to Work' when most of our practices are outdated and over-regulated? We need flexible, agile, performance-based, etc. civil service regulations. The current system encourages an entitlement mentality to set in, a mediocre performance level to be 'successful;' and managers reluctant to rely on HR rules, processes, and systems (count the number of workarounds!)."

(This survey is part of a series of surveys Federal News Radio conducted with federal CXOs in 2013. View our surveys with agency CIOs, CFOs and CAOs here.)

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