Federal chief human capital officers (CHCOs) have a tougher than usual job these days. Not only are they responsible for helping their agencies cope with all the normal challenges of managing a large, diverse and highly skilled workforce, but they are being asked to do it during a time when resources are declining, workload is increasing, public support for government is down and retirements are up.
All of this is documented in a recent report, “Bracing for Change: Chief Human Capital Officers Rethink Business as Usual,” that my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, recently released along with Grant Thornton LLP.
The report is based on interviews I had the privilege of conducting with 55 CHCOs and other human resources leaders in the federal government. In the course of those conversations, it occurred to me that today’s CHCO is much like a canary in the coal mine.
The CHCO’s job is to be more sensitive than most to the changing workforce environment and to signal the alert when there is danger. That alert is being sounded.
It should be noted, however, that what we are hearing from the CHCOs is not a version of the “Washington Monument Syndrome,” in which the response to actual or threatened budget cuts is to announce the potential closure of a popular attraction to elicit public pressure to reverse the cuts.
The CHCOs interviewed assume that the resource constraints and, in many cases, workforce reductions are a fact of life and that agencies need to act accordingly. They also believe that attempts to continue business as usual in the current environment can be a recipe for disaster.
And they sense that any assumption that federal agencies can continue to do everything they are currently doing and in the way it is currently being done sets the government up for failure.
What the CHCOs are saying is that government can do less with less — or perhaps it can do something different with less.
Although they weren’t part of our study, the financial problems facing the U.S. Postal Service are illustrative. Clearly the Postal Service cannot continue to operate as it has — it will have to change its operations or its funding model or both to be sustainable.
CHCOs and other federal leaders and employees are doing what they can to keep agencies operating effectively. In some cases, CHCOs are setting priorities and recommending to agency leadership that some activities be put on hold or life support to keep higher priorities on track.
They are finding ways to better leverage information technology — in some instances by seeking more standardization of IT systems to avoid duplication and improve data sharing. They are finding cost-efficient ways to invest in training and development for executives and HR staffs.
They also are pursuing process improvements in the federal hiring process. They are using metrics and analytics, such as the results of the annual federal employee viewpoint survey, to help find opportunities for improved efficiency and to better engage employees.
All of this is commendable and it’s what one would hope would be done even in the best of circumstances. However, these are not the best of circumstances. The warning implicit from the federal HR leaders is that rethinking business as usual means more than seeking increased efficiencies from the federal workforce.
It must also include rethinking fundamentals such as the laws governing federal workforce management and what we can and cannot reasonably expect government to do with the resources available.
The bottom line is that we can wait until a government program or service that people depend on breaks before we fix it, or we can listen to the early warnings from federal HR leaders and try to do some preventive maintenance.
Between those two options, the choice should be clear.
John Palguta is vice president of policy at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.