Good management

An essential element to acquiring, developing and retaining high-quality federal employees is the availability of "human capital flexibilities." But how effectively feds use these tools matters most.

In broad terms, human capital flexibilities are the policies and practices that an agency can use to manage its workforce to accomplish its mission and achieve its goals. These flexibilities can include actions related to recruitment, retention, compensation, position classification, incentive awards and recognition.

The key to using workforce flexibilities properly is the protection of employee rights. If an agency uses "flexibility" to ride roughshod over its employees, the use of such flexibilities will only backfire. The other side of the coin is that insufficient and ineffective use of flexibilities can significantly hinder federal agencies' ability to recruit, hire, retain, and manage their workers. An example would be failing to award an employee who really worked hard to meet a critical deadline. People aren't going to knock themselves out for you if their efforts go unnoticed.

Congress recently debated the extent of personnel flexibilities that the Homeland Security Department should receive. It finally gave President Bush too much flexibility.

In the meantime, Congress asked the General Accounting Office to provide information on agency and union officials' views about the need for additional workforce flexibilities, and whether additional flexibilities could be implemented while also protecting employees' rights. GAO interviewed the human resources directors of the federal government's 24 largest departments and agencies, and representatives of four national organizations representing federal employees and managers.

GAO officials concluded that agencies should first identify and use the flexibilities available under existing laws and regulations and seek additional flexibilities only when necessary and based on sound business cases. It's true that many managers are unaware of what they can do when dealing with problem employees, when in fact there's plenty they can do.

Nonetheless, GAO's leaders then said that more flexibilities would help federal workforce management. These include more flexible pay approaches to compensate federal employees, greater flexibility to improve the hiring process, increased flexibility in addressing employees' poor job performance, additional workforce restructuring options, and expanded flexibility in acquiring and retaining temporary employees.

Managers and union representatives were predictably divided as to whether managers could be given more flexibility without abusing their authority, which as I said earlier, is crucial in all this. This report doesn't change a thing, but is rather an exercise in futility. It justifies to Congress providing the Homeland Security Department with more workforce flexibility. But that does not ensure good management.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at [email protected]


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