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HR overhaul at USDA nets big benefits

May. 13, 2011 - 03:48PM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
Shortly after his confirmation, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, above, cleaned house at the department's HR office.
Shortly after his confirmation, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, above, cleaned house at the department's HR office. (Thomas Brown / Staff file photo)

In William Milton's experience, human resources services at the Agriculture Department were pretty lame back in 2009.

The HR office at headquarters "couldn't help me on anything, and every time they gave advice or guidance, it was always wrong," said Milton, who was then deputy administrator for management at USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Things changed — dramatically.

Around mid-2009, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack cleaned house at the department's HR office. In December 2009, Vilsack appointed Milton the department's new deputy chief human capital officer, and he was promoted to CHCO last December.

"The secretary actually took everybody that was in HR and moved them into different jobs," Milton told a May 4 conference of Human Capital Management-Federal in Washington.

"One of the first things we said [after taking over] was, what was the problem we had? And that was, we didn't have at the department level the right mix, the right talent of individuals who could provide the best advice, knowing their customers, being strategic."

Milton set out to improve communication among the various HR offices throughout Agriculture. He and his assistants formed a team of HR directors, each representing Agriculture's seven mission areas, that meets every two weeks to review progress on HR initiatives such as hiring reform and how they're tackling the challenges they're facing.

"At the same time, we're giving them the same message about being responsible and accountable," Milton said. "It's not the old USDA."

The results so far are impressive, especially in the department's quest to speed up hiring.

In the first four months of this fiscal year, the department cut the average time to hire new recruits from 134 days to 108 days. At nine of the department's 17 agencies, the gains are even greater: Time to hire is down to fewer than 100 days.

And the department aims to bring that down to 90 days on average by October.

It accomplished this mostly by scrapping the requirement for job applicants to complete lengthy essays on their knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs). Critics said the KSAs were ineffective and discouraged many job seekers from applying for government jobs. Instead, Agriculture just requires job seekers to submit a résumé and cover letter, like most companies do.

When it required KSAs, hiring employees took five months, seven months, sometimes eight months. "We often lost the talent we were trying to hire because of the lengthy process," Milton said.

Agriculture also notifies applicants of their status at each stage of the process, which it didn't do in the past, he said. In the past, job applicants have gone for months without hearing from agencies, and didn't know if they were even still in the running.

Besides speeding up the hiring process, Agriculture's overhaul of its HR office has also improved the advice and other support services it provides to program managers, he said.

President Obama last May ordered agencies to overhaul their hiring processes, and the Office of Personnel Management wants agencies to eventually hire new employees in 80 days or fewer.

Like Agriculture, other departments are moving away from KSAs.

Gene Sexton, the Labor Department's deputy CHCO, said that hiring reform has forced human resources officials to change the way they think.

"It was a major paradigm shift for our folks, to go from reading ridiculous KSA essays ... to do more critical thinking and analysis," Sexton said. "It calls for more interpretation skills and analytic skills and more out-of-the-box thinking."

Sexton said the current increased interest in government service, combined with the Obama administration's demands for aggressive HR reforms, make this an exciting time.

"This is the first time in my 33 years I've seen a time like this for HR professionals, in terms of both the opportunities and the challenges," Sexton said. "There's a lot going on. We at HR always wanted to be at the table. Now we're at the table, and so we've got to matter."

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