Federal Diary: OMB director talks IT and workforce issues

By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; B03

Peter Orszag is often simply called President Obama's budget director. That's correct, but it's the middle word of his full title, Office of Management and Budget director, that makes his role particularly relevant to Uncle Sam's 2 million employees.

The "M" means Orszag's office has significant influence over a broad range of situations that affect federal workers and those who would like to join their ranks. The "M" also could stand for the muscle the Obama administration's OMB has decided to flex in federal personnel issues.

Very soon, for example, the administration plans to announce major repairs to a dilapidated federal hiring process. Other civil service reforms, including how workers are evaluated and paid, are also under consideration.

Orszag spoke with the Federal Diary about some of the major people issues facing the administration. He began, in this edited transcript, by discussing two areas that could be part of President Obama's legacy.

Orszag: The two fundamental areas . . . .that will have a lasting legacy for federal government effectiveness and operations are in human capital, the workforce, including hiring, and also information technology. If we succeed in the process of transforming how we hire, recruit, retain and motivate federal employees, and also succeed in transforming the information technology backbone they have to work with, the federal government will look very different in 20 years. . . . The president has said improving the efficiency with which the government does its job and making government cool again are key things he wants to accomplish.

The Office of Personnel Management and your office have been working on a hiring reform plan to submit to the president. What will that proposal include?

We have been working on hiring reform along with OPM. It takes too long and is too complicated. We're trying to streamline that. Many agencies actually have already started to succeed in reducing the lag times involved in hiring. We're on the verge of a more comprehensive approach that we've been working on with OPM [Office of Personnel Management] to overhaul the hiring system.

That's an example of . . . the interplay of those two structural forces [workforce and IT management]. Without a good IT backbone, it's harder to overhaul the hiring system. . . . Private sector employment decisions have shifted to lots more online applications . . . and any modern hiring process should take advantage of that phenomenon also, including within the federal government.

Last year, you gave agencies six months to make progress in four areas related to hiring -- mapping the agency's hiring process, producing easy to understand job announcements, notifying applicants where they stand at various points in the hiring process and engaging hiring managers at all critical points of the process. How did the agencies respond?

There's been a lot of progress, and when I said earlier that many of the agencies have started to significantly reduce the days to hire, that's in response to the activities that they have undertaken to not only map out their hiring process, but then to start to eliminate unnecessary lags. . . . I think you're going to see, over the next couple of years, a significant reduction from where we were to where we should be, for example, in days to hire as only one metric, but an important metric.

Is it safe to conclude that those four areas will be part of any hiring reform proposal you send to the president?

I'd really rather not get into details about what is or is not going to the president. . . . It is accurate to say we are on the verge of an announcement.

On the issue of civil service reform, is the administration considering significant alterations to the General Schedule pay system?

We are continuing to work with [OPM Director] John Berry and others to see if we can address . . . motivating and retraining [federal workers], and that really then starts to get to what is traditionally called civil service reform. . . . We're not just focused on the front end of the process, i.e., not just on hiring. We're sort of starting there and then also working our way through the rest of the process. . . . You're going to see more immediate change on the hiring stage . . . in part because the others involve more difficult trade-offs.

Are there aspects of the civil service system that you think are in need of attention?

The areas of controversy or challenges involve . . . the coming retirement of an aging workforce, there are issues around performance-based compensation and how that system could or couldn't work in different settings, opportunities for advancement and incentives for strong performance.

What does the failure of NSPS (the Pentagon's National Security Personnel System) say about any future attempts to tie pay to performance?

I think there are ways of creating incentives for strong performance. But, A, it is difficult to evaluate performance in many government settings and, B, one needs to sort of work very carefully and collaboratively to make sure that all participants, managers, employees and agency heads . . . all agree on the path forward. It's a complicated thing to do. . . . We are looking at a variety of different ways to try to provide incentives for good performance. Compensation is only one of them, but it is one of them.

Audio excerpts from the Orszag interview are with this column at http://washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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