Commentary: FMA says hiring reforms must come first

Thursday - 4/8/2010, 3:42pm EDT

In 2010, the President and lawmakers continue to grapple with the demands posed by difficult economic conditions and military engagements on multiple fronts. Given these challenges, in addition to the looming retirement wave, the federal government must be better able to address to the needs of the country.

Ideally, the future civil service would be agile, mobile and streamlined, with its human resources practices consistently applied across the government. In order for the government to be more successful, we must adjust our focus to concentrate on the impact of the employee on the mission rather than the employee's classification or tenure.

Most large employers in the private sector operate successfully on this principle without the need for the outdated and cumbersome rules currently impeding effective management of government employees.

As the federal government is ultimately accountable to the taxpaying citizens of this country, we naturally demand a greater level of oversight, but this should not hinder the overall efficiency of the civil service.

Efforts are currently underway to streamline the federal hiring process, but more must be done if the federal government is going to compete with the private sector for talent.

A flexible, responsive, resume-based system standardized governmentwide would enable job applicants to navigate the hiring process more easily. The federal government should have the flexibility to bring employees on board within weeks of closing the application period instead of the months it currently takes. We lose far too many talented people to other employers because of this labor-intensive, inefficient process.

Training for managers and supervisors is another HR area where there is widespread inconsistency throughout the civil service. Some agencies embrace this need and address it well; others place civilian training at the end of the budget list, ultimately meeting the chopping block. Training must be a priority for every agency, as study after study shows that supervisors are promoted based on technical skills and not managerial aptitude.

An investment in supervisors upfront can save millions in arbitration, complaints made to the Equal Employment Opportunity office, and claims submitted to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Web-based training is a cost-effective delivery method but does not always provide the most efficient learning environment for new supervisors. The value of interaction with other new supervisors and a training instructor cannot be understated.

The government must also modernize its classification system. The simplified classification criteria used under the National Security Personnel System (NSPS) was a giant step forward.

Office of Personnel Management (OPM) classification standards fail to take into account the dramatic technological advances of the past twenty years, particularly the innovations in the health care professions.

NSPS provided a simpler hiring process than the General Schedule, but it still did not go far enough in streamlining applications.

Additionally, the pay flexibilities tested under demonstration projects and NSPS proved invaluable in attracting and retaining the best and the brightest, particularly in highly skilled career fields.

These programs attempted to address the unnecessarily rigid nature of the antiquated General Schedule system. For the government to succeed and its employees to work effectively, focus must be placed on performance rather than longevity.

The federal government requires a realistic, easily managed performance-based system if we are to succeed in the 21st Century.

NSPS was needlessly cumbersome, not user-friendly, and the pay pool panel concept was not consistently applied across pay pools, but the principle was sound.

Of course, any requirement to differentiate employees based on job performance places more work on supervisors, but that is part of a supervisor's job. This type of evaluation, properly implemented, will improve retention, recognition and ultimately productivity.

While the overall HR future of the federal government remains to be seen, there are a few guiding principles which I believe will lead to a stronger civil service, beginning with a streamlined hiring process and ending with a performance-based compensation system.

Patricia Niehaus was recently elected as National President of the Federal Managers Association. In her professional life, Niehaus serves as the Labor Relations Officer for Travis Air Force Base, a position she has held since 2000. Niehaus has more than 27 years experience working for the federal government.