Why modernizing human capital systems is so hard

Treasury, DOD and others are working to modernize talent management, but budgetary, cultural and political challenges complicate their progress.

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The focus on getting talent in the door and managing it using technology is nothing new for government. And there are efforts within agencies to modernize human capital management, but internal and external challenges alike complicate their progress.

The Department of Treasury is undertaking a particularly ambitious system modernization effort. Using a cloud-based, commercial off-the-shelf product, Treasury is working to combine 27 independent personnel systems into one, merging "performance management, learning management, workforce planning and succession," said Gerald Leach, Treasury's director of talent management and technologies.

"The integrated talent management will replace 27 unique Treasury systems that keep track of personnel, learning, workforce planning, succession planning, and… to be able to get better reporting up to Treasury from the 11 bureaus," he said at the National Defense Industrial Association's annual iFEST conference on Aug. 28.

"The two biggest challenges I'm looking at are how do we get these competencies to work and having the bureaus to participate in this," Leach said, specifically pointing to IRS's focus on staffing up to adapt to the new tax law. "The big focus is how do we get people to buy in and utilize this program?"

Leach noted there isn't quite anything like this — one integrated system and combined data reporting across bureaus — currently in government.

"We are actually two weeks away from getting this up and running," he said. By November, the system will be live Treasury-wide, he said, as bureaus move to the single system.

Reese Madsen, chief learning officer at the Department of Defense, said his office is looking to develop a "talent development toolkit" that could eventually nail down information such as how long it takes to go up in proficiency level, what programs will lead to that proficiency level boost, and how much it's going to cost.

"Right now, we're kind of doing that shooting from the hip… But none of the stuff we're talking about is technologically impossible," he said. "The challenges we have are only political and cultural."

Budgets are also a challenge. "In our HR area, we are being reduced" when it comes to dollars and people, said Leach. "My first wish is we get enough resources to get things moving, not necessarily the lottery to get everything."

Another outside factor that could play into federal talent management includes early moves to implement reorganization proposals — and pending congressional approval — at the government's personnel agency.

The White House has proposed moving several responsibilities handled by the Office of Personnel Management into the General Services Administration, which would be renamed the Government Services Agency.

"There's a lot happening on the talent development side," said Paul Jesukiewicz, the director of OPM's Knowledge Portal. "I'm not sure how it's going to change with this potential merger."

Jesukiewicz pointed to the digital employee record OPM is working on to help track employees throughout their federal service and make moving across agencies -- or in and out of government -- easier. He added he's hoping to get to a level of depth and real-time tracking that could eventually include job analyses and training records.

But even some of these tracking developments could meet their own challenges.

"The more data we're collecting now on an individual, there's a lot of controversy on it because I could also start tracking performance," Jesukiewicz said, adding that unions could oppose this sort of data collection if they fear it'll be used to rate or punish employees.

He also noted that cybersecurity and data sensitivity become greater concerns as more personal data is collected.

Madsen added he's "hoping to explore" a universal identifier for employees, but proposed using a number rather than employees' names to free up information and make it harder to trace.

With increased data collection and technological progress, he said, if agencies can "have people comfortable, I think that's key."

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