HR leaders, CHCOs demand that Congress let them 'Make the Cuts'

Tuesday - 5/20/2014, 4:59pm EDT

By Stephanie Wasko
Federal News Radio

Chief Human Capital Officers and Human Resource leaders have played an important role in pulling the federal workforce through the past few years of sequestration, pay freezes and a government shutdown. CHCOs now aim to rebuild the federal workplace, but face challenges such as Congress' unpredictable budgets, an unengaged workforce and an ineffective hiring system.

This week, the Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton LLP release their fifth report in a series initiated in 2007 (the fourth "Bracing for Change" was released in April 2012). In this year's report, "Embracing Change," interviewers questioned 62 federal CHCOs and HR leaders on the challenges facing the federal workplace and their proposed resolutions. The report highlights five primary suggestions to overcome challenges in the federal workplace:

  1. Develop an effective strategy for federal workforce management in a diminished budget environment.

  2. Sustain efforts to reverse the significant decline in employee engagement.

  3. Remake the federal hiring system.

  4. Continue to develop and make good use of workforce data and analytics tools.

  5. Strengthen the federal HR workforce and federal HR systems and structures.

Although reducing budgets is necessary, the survey shows the management and implementation of these budget cuts play a crucial role in the federal community. In the report, CHCOs express frustration at sequestration's across-the-board budget cuts and lament the lack of a more tactical approach. "My dream would be to have Congress tell us what they want and let us make the cuts. When you just get a broad cut across the board, it hurts everything. And it is stupid. It is just plain stupid," said one CHCO.

The two-year bipartisan budget passed in January 2014 provides momentary relief from the unpredictable, changing budgets, but many respondents expressed doubt over any fundamental change.

The report shows that these budget cuts have reduced hiring while workloads continue to increase creating skills gaps and overworked employees. It states that from 2009 to 2012 more employees left than were hired. In addition, total government hiring decreased 37 percent. "We have more missions [now than] we were responsible for 30 years ago, but we have fewer employees," one CHCO said. The survey reiterated the necessity to find new, efficient ways of handling jobs as well as the importance of exploring cross-agency arrangements.

According to the report, training and development budgets have plummeted as a result of sequester and the Office of Management and Budget's newly tightened restrictions on travel and conferences. In addition to hurting the training of new hires, the report says "employees are reported to be struggling to adapt to new or expanded job responsibilities that they may not have the background, skills or training to fulfill effectively."

The survey offers the suggestion that Congress "revamp the federal government's pay and job classification system. These antiquated and ineffective systems hinder the government's ability to attract, retain and deploy employees as effectively and efficiently as possible."

The 2013 employee job satisfaction and commitment scores dropped to their lowest in 10 years, according to the survey, causing concern among the CHCOs. Pay freezes and a government shut-down that targeted specific jobs as "unnecessary" are some of the reasons for low employee engagement outlined in the report.

The respondents highlighted management's responsibility to promote engagement among its employees. They saw that top leadership excels in commitment to employee engagement; however, lower-ranked managers do not always follow suit. CHCOs hope to implement means of holding senior managers accountable for action taking in raising employee engagement, expanding the use of multisource feedback on development and performance and exploring nonmonetary rewards systems.

"Because the number of government employees has decreased while the workload has increased or remained steady, it has become even more important that each new employee is the best match possible for the position," the report says. The CHCOs agreed the current hiring process needs improvement in order to meet the agency's needs on a tight budget.

The survey showed that the Pathways Program, which provides students and recent graduates with internships and full-time employment, does not live up to agency expectations. "We are not happy with Pathways," one CHCO said. "It is simply not working. The public notice requirement is killing me."

The CHCOs still find Pathways to be a promising idea, but the requirement to accept all applications overwhelms the hiring management.

CHCOs also suggested that veteran preference be revisited to serve veterans without permanent federal employment, while avoiding other unintended consequences. One suggestion included ending veteran preference once a veteran has been hired to a permanent federal position.