In hiring, Uncle Sam could use better HR -- and PR

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, October 29, 2009

The 40 people who met behind closed doors in the Ronald Reagan Building on Wednesday weren't in a position to make any decisions about fixing the federal government's recruitment and hiring process, but their discussion could have a lasting impact on federal policy.

The Harvard Kennedy School, along with the University of Maryland and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), organized the six-hour meeting of administration officials, members of Congress, Capitol Hill staffers, employee organization heads, private sector leaders, good government types and academics.

It was an invitee-only, off-the-record session that participants described as a candid conversation about the issues facing Uncle Sam as he tries to overhaul a personnel employment process that seems stuck in the mud.

Although meetings like that sometimes reek of elitism and secrecy, participants said there was a valuable exchange of ideas from a broad range of voices that could help Sam get hiring right.

Congress and OPM have been working to reform hiring, and OPM Director John Berry said he hopes to have a set of proposals ready before the end of the year.

"We learned a number of ideas, especially from the private sector and from our union leadership, that we had not heard before today," he told reporters after the meeting. Those ideas, he said, will "greatly inform" the proposals he presents to President Obama.

Others said the ideas included having line managers more directly involved in hiring. Currently, some meeting participants said, personnel or human relations shops, as important as they may be, don't fully understand the demands of the positions to be filled and yet are responsible for hiring.

Another idea from the meeting: Uncle Sam should do a better job branding and promoting his work.

The Army and the Marine Corps know how to do it. Certainly money is a motivating factor for recruits, but the military, in part through TV commercials, has successfully branded itself as a place where young men and women go to become mature adults with a clear sense of mission.

You can't say that about your average civilian agency.

Private-sector participants urged government officials to make greater use of data and metrics to keep track of how they are doing in their recruiting and hiring efforts.

After the session, David Ellwood, dean of the Harvard Kennedy School and co-chairman of the meeting, said the government's ability to deal with a range of issues, including problems as big as pandemics and global warming, depends on the quality of its staff. So, although the federal workforce gets far less attention than those issues, Ellwood said, "it is by definition every bit as important."

Long-term insurance

The congressional pique over the unexpected rate increases hitting many federal long-term care insurance holders isn't over yet. Two weeks ago, the Senate held a hearing on the rate increases, and now Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) wants the House to do the same.

As the Federal Diary reported in August, federal employees are outraged because information provided when they signed up for a particular long-term care program seven years ago indicated that their premiums would not go up. Now, some face increases of as much as 25 percent.

In a letter to the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce, Connolly urged the panel "to investigate what if any steps are being taken to better protect the interests of federal employees so that they cannot be so grossly misled."

A copy of Connolly's letter can be viewed with this column at

Contracting guidelines

Lawmakers responded tepidly to the Obama administration's new contracting guidelines Wednesday, saying that the Office of Management and Budget did not provide enough guidance to federal agencies and departments on how to cut their contract spending.

Agencies and departments have until Monday to present plans to cut 7 percent of their contracting budgets over the next two years. They must also hire at least 5 percent more contracting officers over the next five years, meaning at least 500 new hires across the government, according to the OMB.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairman of the Senate's contracting oversight subcommittee, said the new instructions don't do enough to hold agencies accountable if they don't cut contracting costs.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) called the OMB's instructions "boilerplate" and joined Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in expressing concern that the government will not properly train or retain enough contracting officers.

Jeffrey Zients, OMB's deputy director for management, said the agency will expand an internship-style program to train entry-level and mid-career contracting specialists.

"There's an opportunity, I believe, given how interested people are in serving and given the state of this economy, to bring people in who are experienced," Zients said.

Staff writer Ed O'Keefe

contributed to this column.

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