HReinvented: Feds mixed on OPM's HR reform plans, survey finds

Monday - 4/5/2010, 6:52am EDT

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The Office of Personnel Management submitted its recommendations to the White House to improve federal human resources processes. But optimism among federal employees is not strong, according to a new survey by Federal News Radio. (To view the complete survey results in pdf form, click here.)

As part of our new week-long series HReinvented, Federal News Radio found that 47 percent of the 385 respondents say they are not optimistic about OPM's efforts to reform the federal HR processes.

About 8 percent say they are very optimistic and 35 percent say they are somewhat optimistic.

"OPM is trying to fix the only part of the system that is not broken--KSA's are a boon, allowing an agency to actually look for candidates who will fit the position. What's broken is the bureaucratic system itself--the arcane rules on announcing, rating, ranking, etc. are the problem," says one respondent.

Federal News Radio surveyed listeners and readers online and of the 385 responses, 73 percent say they work at civilian agencies, 23 percent at the Defense Department and 2 percent work at intelligence agencies.

Among the respondents, 82 percent say they are at a General Schedule level 10 or higher, and 78 percent say they have been with the government for more than 16 years.

Federal employees' comments about OPM's HR reforms ran the gamut of both what OPM director John Berry needs to do, to what he shouldn't do to sometimes personal.

Here are a few of the 71 comments:

  • "John Berry needs to make changes mandatory, and not voluntary."

  • "As long as the decision makers in DC and VA stay in their ivory towers there will not be any major improvements. Few if any decision makers have any field experience and rarely have to implement or work the policies and processes that they set."

  • "The processes aren't broken. I believe a lot of money will be wasted blaming it on the processes and trying to fix them. What we have needs to be properly administered."

  • I don't feel all areas of HR process should be reformed and highly disappointed with OPM's decision to eliminate 'time-in-grade' policy. I have a HR background and know first-hand hiring and recruiting practices do work if the employment and personnel offices within the agencies really did their jobs and if management practices would abide by OPM's guidance. OPM's focus should be on reforming federal workforce in executing hiring policy and guidance, and classification of jobs. Too many times management is allowed to dictate positions without adequate justification. Eliminating 'time-in-grade' provision would be a very bad move by OPM and a sad day for so many federal employees as a result. This policy has protected those employees not favored by mgmt and would not otherwise receive performance awards or get promoted. Until federal agencies, such as mine, practice fair and equitable treatment, OPM should proceed cautiously."

  • They are focus[ing] on the wrong things and need to focus on uniformity across agencies."

  • I think John Berry is going to accomplish great things for the Federal Government and its People!"

Despite the fact a large number of respondents were not optimistic about OPM's HR reforms, a majority of all federal employees say recruitment, hiring, training, management of employees and dismissal of employees should be overhauled.

Only retention and the retirement process, a majority of respondents say only need some tweaks.

"I work in HR, so I know the process very well. There are definitely some things that need to be updated - first and foremost the OPM qualification standards that are used for some positions are very old and completely out of date. Automated hiring systems will help too. KSAs need to be eliminated. Veterans' preference should not apply to people who already are employed in a permanent position with the federal government. Once they have obtained or previously held a perm federal position, that should be the end of their preference for hiring purposes," says one respondent.

Another federal employee says, "It takes us MONTHS to hire employees--sometimes 7 or more. There is no plan for overlap and training of new employees by those leaving, organizational plans go out the window the minute the ink is dry, poor training plans and delivery methods, and silly repetitive requirements that should be examined for streamlining and better effectiveness."

And yet another employee offers this advice, "It is incredibly difficult to hire and many jobs are difficult to recruit as we generally look for experienced personnel due to the technical complexities of our work. Matching salaries is difficult and providing sufficient training for recent grads is difficult. It may help to expand college work programs to help bridge the training gap while bringing on fresh ideas at a cost competitive salary."

Almost half of all respondents say the GS System works, and just less than 10 percent say it doesn't work.

A large number of the 58 comments say the GS System is not the problem, but the managers who use it need better training and need to stop figuring out how to get around the system. Many respondents say there does need to be tweaks, including stopping capping employees at Step 10 and the pay grades should be reassessed on a more regular basis.

While 49 percent say the GS System works, 39 percent say a pay-for-performance system should not be used on a governmentwide basis, while 28 percent said it should and 22 percent say maybe it could work.

Many of the 112 commenters say favoritism is their biggest concern. "Problems with such a subjective system is that favoritism and cronyism seems to prevail. End results do not match the promised outcomes yet little can be done to counter it when marginal responses are allowed to suffice."

Several respondents discussed their experience with DoD's National Security Personnel System (NSPS). Some, like this commenter, liked NSPS "I am an NSPS employee. NSPS is not perfect, but I believe it is a step in the right direction."

But many said NSPS didn't stop the favoritism of management or stop managers from applying the rules inconsistently, "NSPS was a great idea that didn't take into account the abysmal managers, who began threatening their employees with reduced salaries as soon as NSPS was implemented. The training we received was great; our managers didn't get it. They weren't able to manage positive change. If we did not pander to their egos sufficiently, we were under constant threat of poor performance ratings. They could, and did, say whatever they liked in an employee's final assessment. There was no interaction with the employee to set expectations, etc. It was a terrible experience for most people, who were often impacted by the incredible stress and suffered serious health issues as a result."

Overall, many respondents say there needs to be changes in the federal HR processes. There was a lot of support for both getting rid of the KSAs, but also keeping them.

One respondent said, "John Berry needs to stop saying that the reason why the Federal government takes so long to hire someone is due to the selection process and KSA narratives. There are many agencies that have done massive hiring efforts using state-of-the-art assessments, interviews, and tests to have fair and open competition for Federal employment. The massive hiring efforts at the TSA (when it was stood up), CBP (which doubled the number of Border Patrol Agents), and the Census Bureau (they are hiring over a million census workers) are just a few examples. The hiring process currently takes so long for two main reasons. First there is a bureaucracy associated with posting a job opportunity. Budgets come into play, approval needs to be obtained from multiple parties, etc. Second, the background investigation process takes a long time, and there is not much that can be done about this. Bringing employees on-board before a background is complete is a terrible idea and will lead to corruption, compromise of private information, etc."

Several respondents say OPM and their agency human resources employees are the problems.

"HR departments need to recognize and realize who their real customers are and serve them in a capacity of expectation to meeting those demands. HR's way of dealing with issues and questions appears to be through the process of ignoring, with this philosophical best practice results in many disgruntled employees. Also the government's hiring processes and policies are generally not fair and equitable when internal or external candidates are taken into consideration. Steps and money increases often times are much kinder and favorable to an external applicant than an internal because of the merit system's guidelines. This is unfair to employees who have proven themselves to be qualified and dedicated employees, or maybe this is why they are limited so that a department or agency will not lose a good employee to the risk of performance of an untrained unknown."

Another respondent said this about OPM, "OPM needs to do a better job overseeing agency hiring and merit promotion practices. It's become an old boy network with managers making pre-selections. I've actually witnessed management announcing a selection before the vacancy closed. This resulted in another employee filing and winning a grievance, but it didn't change management practices at the agency."

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