Experts from government, industry and academia that gathered at a September White House symposium all agreed that any federal initiatives for improving the workforce had to focus on the employee experience.

“In order to drive positive change that benefits the American people, it is vital to get views from beyond the Beltway. Business leaders and human capital experts joined federal leaders to discuss leading practices in transformational change around people and the workforce in the 21st century,” said Margaret Weichert, Office of Management and Budget deputy director for management and acting director at the Office of Personnel Management, in a press release.

“The symposium was a unique opportunity to think differently about systemic HR issues that affect the President’s Management Agenda.”

Though the symposium itself was closed to the press, an Oct. 23 MITRE Corporation report synthesizing the conversation topics and suggested improvements placed the people working within government at the center of any change the administration should choose to make.

“One thing that came out in discussion and comes out in the report is that there is this core idea that anything that is done should consider the employee experience, as well as the business need,” said Jim Cook, vice president of strategic engagement and partnerships at MITRE, in an interview with Federal Times.

“If you lose your employees, if you lose their hearts and minds, it doesn’t matter what you do.”

According to the report, the discussion at the symposium focused on four central topics: the relationship between technology and people; the need for upskilling and reskilling to position people to adapt to and grow with the changing nature of work; rethinking performance management and all its aspects, including compensation; and needed reforms to modernize the civil service.

Within those topic areas, the government faces challenges setting up a workforce strategy that matches the changing nature of work, making the right investments to attract needed talent and skills, and updating laws to keep up with current needs.

The MITRE report presented nine recommendations for tackling the government’s workforce challenges:

  1. Increase use of partnerships for talent exchange programs;
  2. Expand use of critical hiring authorities; 
  3. Use data science to develop evidence-based HR strategies;
  4. Expand use of apprenticeships and development partnerships;
  5. Build training and reskilling into technology procurements;
  6. Collaborate with labor organizations on an initiative with clear outcomes and shared interests;
  7. Establish a talent marketplace to increase mobility opportunities;
  8. Develop managers to provide ongoing, effective, feedback and coaching; and
  9. Explore approaches for aligning compensation with value and performance.

“While the recommendations were not presented in any priority order, in some sense they are presented from the easiest first and the most difficult last. The easiest to implement are those where there are already existing authorities, they just need to be leveraged,” said Cook.

Those existing authorities include Intergovernmental Personnel Act, which provides government with the ability to pull expertise from other government-related organizations, and special hiring and pay authorities that the administration is already beginning to take advantage of.

“In both the IPA case and in the critical pay case, when there is a developmental component in the agreements, it benefits the employees that are already there and will continue to work in the agency long after the IPA or the critical pay is gone,” said Cook.

The report also emphasized the importance of labor unions and organizations, many of whom have clashed recently with Trump administration policies, being a part of workforce decisions.

The symposium discussed the Portsmouth Shipyard Renewal of Shipyard Values and Pride program, which sat down with labor organizations to discuss potential changes, as an example of how labor and government could work together.

“That was a very powerful story where both labor and management agreed that something needed to change, and one thing they agreed to was, let’s sit down and ask our people, ‘What would you like to see? What would an ideal day look like? What would you like to see on the job site at the beginning of the day that will most effectively help you do your job?’” Cook said.

The report also noted that the current General Schedule system is not designed to align with rewarding employee performance, though addressing that challenge could prove the most difficult component of workforce reform.

“This is probably one of the harder recommendations to implement, because I think it has to be carefully reviewed against the intent of that model, that structure,” said Cook.

“We don’t know, because we haven’t done the detailed analysis, to what extent you have to modify the merit system or the GS system in order to accommodate some of these recommendations.”

But Cook added that now the job of MITRE and other participating organizations from the symposium will be to test and research the best ways to approach the government’s workforce challenges. And OMB leadership is actively open to that collaboration.

“There is a lot of energy from that group in continuing to be involved as Margaret [Weichert] carries things forward,” said Cook.

Jessie Bur covers the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees.

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