Marsh: Empowering HR officers

Many agencies have HR systems that have not evolved past the Cold War era

In 1996, at the peak of concern about how poorly the federal government was managing information technology, Congress enacted the Clinger-Cohen Act. The law, and subsequent legislation that helped strengthen it, established accountability for IT management.

It required executive agencies to appoint chief information officers and federal agencies to modernize their IT management practices.

With the understanding that federal IT employees had to continuously innovate and manage change, lawmakers focused on the workforce. Clinger-Cohen requires CIOs to compare employees' skills with federal agencies' strategic needs. The law also requires CIOs to identify gaps and create staffing, development and training programs to address those problems.

Now agencies need to similarly to transform the federal human resources workforce.

People and culture lie at the heart of the change we want to achieve. We cannot afford to fail. If we do, we will lack the HR workers we need to promote and sustain that change.

Many agencies have HR systems, processes and structures that have not evolved past the Cold War era. That aging infrastructure persists because government leaders have not valued HR as critical to achieving their missions and programs.

For too many years, HR has been a favorite target during budget cutbacks and staff reductions. We lack the architects for a new era in federal HR policies and practices. We have not been active in hiring and developing a strategic HR workforce with the skills and executive stature needed to inspire organizational transformation and high performance.

Our HR workforce is older than the rest of our federal workforce. Unfortunately, steps to reverse this situation are lacking in most agencies' strategic plans.

Some programs focus on federal HR challenges. The President's Management Agenda, for example, has raised the profile of workforce management. The Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management have developed a line-of-business initiative to modernize some important HR systems.

Although a few agencies transformed their HR processes and employees to meet the challenges of 21st-century government, they are the exceptions.

The enactment of the Chief Human Capital Officers Act of 2002 was a step toward the development of a strategic leadership focus for HR. Let's take the next big step by supplementing that law with specific requirements for upgrading the HR workforce.

New requirements will demand additional resources. Funds must be available to support agencies' modernization efforts. And accountability must accompany funding. New legislation should mandate that agencies report annually on progress toward HR transformation. Reporting requirements would also help ensure that federal leaders make HR workforce changes a priority.

Marsh is vice president of government transformation at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization. She can be reached at mmarsh@ourpublicservice.org.

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