Editor's Note: This article was originally published on Oct. 27, 2014.

Congressional budget cuts, sequestration and hiring freezes have opened up gaps in the workforce at the Housing and Urban Development Department. So when fiscal 2014 began, the agency set a goal: Hire 1,000 people before the end of the year. The agency received more than 121,000 applications for the open positions, which pushed the agency to find creative ways to responsibly sort through those applications and find the best people for each job.

Michael Anderson, the chief human capital officer at HUD, and Towanda Brooks, the deputy chief human capital officer, spoke to Federal Times Staff Writer Andy Medici about the hiring effort and how to manage a federal agency during turbulent fiscal times.

So why hire 1,000 people? How did you decide which office needed what?

Anderson: Between last year being a sequestration year, and the prior years being continuing resolutions and not having full access to budgets this year in 2014, we got a full budget from Congress. That allowed us to plan our year and to set a goal of 1,000. And that goal came about by program offices submitting our hiring plans. We didn't pick that number out of the air. It resulted from hiring plans. Adding up the numbers on the hiring plans and seeing where, what people were asking for. So that is how the 1,000 came about.

Everybody was needy, had lost people, so across the board there was a need for hiring. And all of the program offices were affected and at all skill levels. There was no particular focus. We got started in earnest around April and May. We had about six months of hiring to do. Of course, the deadline was September to get everybody on board in 2014. That required a broad collaborative effort. It started at the senior team level with the secretary, chief of staff, the deputy secretary and the assistant secretaries. What it turned out to be was really a paradigm of reflecting on our core values of teamwork, respecting each other in imperfect conditions. Over time we found we were evolving a more efficient, effective hiring process.

How do you make sure in such a limited time frame that you recruit and hire the right people for the job or make sure that someone who could better fit another job is placed there instead?

Anderson:That's a challenge. You are trying to get tremendous numbers given the opportunity. Our role in that was to create a process whereby we could build a capacity in the hiring process to get those numbers on board.

But we also had to lean very heavily on the front end of that process, working with the hiring managers to make sure that the PDs — position descriptions — and the job analysis were done properly so that we attract the right people to the posting. Then once we had a list, the HR specialist has the role of going in and meeting those that meet the minimum qualifications and producing a roster for the hiring manager who then will take that list and select the folks from that list that best match what their needs are.

It again is a collaborative effort in terms of both the quantity piece of it — building the capacity to get the thousand people through — and the quality piece. Making sure that not only do we hire someone, but we hire the right person, as you mentioned. It is a combination of science and art in how we do that. But our hiring managers really play a key role in knowing what it is they are looking for. Our job is to support them with expertise and a process and substantive knowledge, too, in terms of helping them get the right people on board.

Brooks:The organization provides a lot of information to employees. In order to be transparent in this hiring process, it wasn't just about high levels of people knowing about the hiring data. We share hiring numbers and where we were in the process through webcasts to all of our employees. Our chief performance officer on Fridays would share where we were in hiring to get people pumped up about it, so it wasn't just a shared responsibility or a shared goal. If we met the goal, everybody was excited about it. It wasn't just an OCHCO [Office of the Chief Human Capital Organization] thing. It was an organizational win. I think that was extremely important.

Are there any specific plans you have for all the new employees? How do you capitalize on bringing on that talent into the agency?

Anderson: If we do our job right post-hiring, the question is how do we create an environment for them to do their best work. It becomes a leadership challenge and a management opportunity for us, and that is an area that we are putting more investment dollars into to do better. We have programs that we are developing, and these are programs that are starting across the federal government in terms of employee engagement that is part of the Presidential Management Agenda. Investing more dollars in leadership and management. Investing more dollars in helping employees to have a voice in their work experience and how they spend their discretionary time. A couple of things that we are doing specifically is this notion of innovation time. That is, employees being able to spend a percentage of their time working on things that they have chosen. Things that excite them.

As you bring on new employees and older workers leave the agency or retire, how do you make sure to transfer that knowledge?

Brooks: Under the Office of the Chief Human Capital Organization, we have our chief learning officer really trying to figure out how do we capture some of that knowledge and how do we really work with our seasoned leaders, seasoned supervisors, seasoned subject matter experts and capture some of that knowledge. We are building that. We have actually implemented a mentoring and a coaching program within the agency as a part of that knowledge transfer and a part of helping employees learn other things in the organization.

We are really on the cutting edge, I think, with our HUD learn organization and knowledge transfer. Last year we did some seminars where leaders were able to work — actually sit in front of employees and talk about — it is called Leadership Inspired — where they talked about their experience and they shared their journey. We are trying different things to be able to do that knowledge transfer. For some organizations it is having those employees that are at that point in their career that they can retire or take on another challenge actually helping out with the onboarding process and helping record sessions about certain things that are going on in the organization.

Towanda Brooks

Photo Credit: Rob Curtis/Staff, Staff

Anderson: Another thing we are leveraging is the phased retirement program that is happening governmentwide. A component of that program is that during the phased retirement period, that retiree will spend at least 20 percent of their time mentoring. The notion is that there is knowledge transfer, and so we will be leveraging that to the fullest extent.

How do you balance tight budgets with the need to hire new people?

Anderson: You don't know the future. That is why it is so important that we did not miss our goal of 1,000 hires. How long has it been since we had a budget? It is hard to plan and hard to really leverage the opportunities in that context. You really have to take advantage of that, and we are happy that we are able to take advantage of it this time. So, in terms of how we manage the uncertainty of the future, you make the most of what you have. We did not have a perfect hiring process to hire 1,000 people, to be honest with you. But we didn't focus on that.

What we focused on is the collaboration. We knew that together, collectively, as our chief of staff said, we are greater than the sum of our parts. What we had to do was to figure out how to work together collectively in imperfect situations. Imperfect processes. Imperfect people. Sometimes imperfect incentives. That is what we did.

I think we have used that same formula going forward, and that is, we won't know what tomorrow will bring. Right now we are under a continuing resolution again. The question is, how do we make the most of the context we are in, and how do we keep our people focused on the work that they are doing and the importance of that work.

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