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HR execs brace for downsizing

Aug. 8, 2012 - 06:00PM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
Partnership for Public Service CEO Max Stier said federal agencies must plan more to avoid reckless staffing cuts that could gut crucial skills.
Partnership for Public Service CEO Max Stier said federal agencies must plan more to avoid reckless staffing cuts that could gut crucial skills. (Committee on Oversight and Government Reform)

The government’s top human resources officials expect their agencies’ workforces to decline due to budget cuts, according to a new survey the Partnership for Public Service will release Thursday.

Seventy-two percent of 55 senior federal HR executives surveyed a predict their agencies will see staffing cuts — especially at larger agencies — and many fear their agencies are doing little to prepare for them.

About 36 percent of those surveyed said their agencies are ill-prepared to fill critical positions as they become vacated. Another 36 percent feel their agencies’ succession plans show moderate success, according to the report, “Bracing for Change.”

Partnership CEO Max Stier said agencies must plan more to avoid reckless staffing cuts that could gut crucial skills.

“This is a period of substantial change in the government,” Stier said. “If you do it right, you can minimize the downside. But if you don’t, you could do real harm to the American public, and what they receive from the government. What do you prioritize with a diminished resource base?”

But the broken budget process is making the problem worse, the report said. Congress rarely passes annual budgets on time, and instead passes a series of continuing resolutions well into the fiscal year before the actual budget is passed. This means managers often don’t know if they can hire new staff for certain areas, which makes “effective planning close to impossible,” the report said.

“It’s not just that there’s less,” Stier said. “It’s that they don’t know what they will have.”

Although budgets and workforces are both expected to decline in the near future, the Partnership doesn’t expect this to spark a new wave of outsourcing. Stier said this is because most jobs that can easily yield savings through outsourcing have already been outsourced. Instead, the report said that agencies must be more creative and work on improving their current staffs’ capabilities to allow them to do more.

“HR feels there’s not much low-hanging fruit left there” in terms of outsourcing possibilities, Stier said.

Other findings:

• An “alarming” decline in the confidence of chief human capital officers (CHCOs) in agency managers’ leadership skills. In 2008, the Partnership found that 44 percent of surveyed CHCOs thought their agencies’ non-HR managers and supervisors had the skills needed to be successful. By 2010, that number had dropped to 32 percent, and this year, it plunged to 18 percent. The percentage of CHCOs who thought other supervisors had limited or no leadership skills at all increased from 18 percent in 2008 to 33 percent this year.

• A clear consensus that the six-decade-old General Schedule system is outdated and should be replaced with a series of broad pay bands. HR officials agreed that the government’s performance management system should be strengthened, since managers are not as involved in evaluating employees as they should be, and because it remains difficult to reward high performers and discipline poor performers. But there was no consensus on exactly what a new civil service system should look like. And some feared if the government handled the process poorly, it could end up with something worse than the GS system.

• Twenty-six percent of CHCOs said they don’t have the resources to do their jobs effectively, up six percentage points from the last survey in 2010.

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