Workforce

How can agencies focus on the workforce during reorgs?

people standing on keyboard (Who is Danny/Shutterstock.com) 

The nation's top human resources officer said that even agencies planning for lower budgets and reduced headcount can't skimp on employee engagement.

"We can't lose sight of needing to maintain a high-performance workforce where these changes are occurring," said Office of Personnel Management Acting Director Kathleen McGettigan at a March 6 event hosted by Government Executive.

"In the months to come, you'll see more on how to rescale and upscale employees," especially as automation and robotics continue to gain more workplace prominence, she added. "We must think about how to rescale and retrain… In other words, we have to keep positions technologically current."

OPM's 2018 Workforce Priorities Report, released in February, highlighted ways agencies could combat insufficient training and low staffing levels while modernizing and supporting "the administration's initiatives to reshape the workforce and maximize employee performance."

The White House's fiscal year 2019 budget proposal reinforced its plans to cut civilian-side funding, reorganize government and freeze pay for civilian employees.

Agency reorganization plans were due to the White House in February, and are expected to be released sometime this month, in conjunction with revised agency and cross-agency priority goals.

"I think we're going to see more emphasis on those this year, particularly as we've now come out with some tools on how you restructure," said Sara Ratcliff, executive director of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council. "And once the political leadership gets on board, there'll be a stronger emphasis in how they do it and which piece."

Jason Bossie, the director of the Office of Performance Management at the Small Business Administration, said his agency's priority goals as part of the President's Management Agenda include retraining staff, communication and other initiatives "connecting back to IT modernization."

However, the administration also faces problems within the civil service it's trying to reform.

For one, persisting vacancies in senior leadership — as well as low approval scores of senior leaders — present an additional challenge to employee engagement.

"Senior leadership is the number one driver of satisfaction," said Andrew Marshall of the Partnership for Public Service, which releases annual rankings of the best places to work in government. In its annual rankings, senior leadership is consistently among the lowest-rated workplace categories. Performance-based rewards and advancement also ranked towards the bottom.

Another priority in the OPM report, as well as the 2017 SES Onboarding Report, is training federal employees.

The White House's budget proposal calls for the creation of a $1 billion interagency fund, to be included in fiscal year 2018 appropriations, to "reward and retain high performers and those with the most essential skills."

Ratcliffe said she anticipates the workforce fund, if appropriated, will lead to the prioritization of training by agencies.

Currently, the 106-day average hiring time is "a real nonstarter, particularly for your very competitive employees, students coming out of college," she said. "Skinning that cat is probably one of the highest priorities we have."

Ratcliff added government will "probably need to explore with the private sector" possible remedies.

But legislative civil service reform may still prove a heavy lift, said Robert Shea, an OMB official in the George W. Bush administration and currently a principal in Grant Thornton's public sector practice.

"It's going to be really hard to get it done, and the closer we get to the midterm elections, the harder it will be," he said.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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