Key personnel officials identify obstacles to federal hiring reforms

Human capital officers give high marks to OPM Director John Berry, according to a report prepared by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service .
Human capital officers give high marks to OPM Director John Berry, according to a report prepared by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service . (Juana Arias - Juana Arias/ftwp)
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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

President Obama's ambitious plans to reform the federal hiring process are in danger of being stalled by a corps of personnel staffers who are not equipped to do the job.

That's one jarring conclusion from 68 government chief human capital officers presented in a report that the Partnership for Public Service (PPS) planned to issue on Wednesday.

The "competency of HR workers" is one of seven "major obstacles to building a first-class federal workforce" identified by the officers, known as "CHCOs" (pronounced "chicos").

It's not that the human relations professionals are incompetent. They don't have the training or the technology needed to keep up with a quickly changing workplace.

Kathryn Medina, executive director of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, said there are "unprecedented efforts by [the Office of Personnel Management] to train and educate federal agencies across the country on the reform initiatives."

The council, in partnership with OPM, "is working to deliver a federal-wide HR University to address the issue of training our federal workforce on critical skills and competencies," Medina added in an e-mailed statement. "The CHCOs themselves will decide where the training focus needs to be, and [will] groom and develop the next generation of HR professionals capable of handling the complex issues we face today and in the future."

Although the CHCOs fully support administration plans to overhaul the government's dysfunctional hiring process, "they expressed strong doubts that the human resources community, the very people who will be on the frontlines seeking to implement the hiring reform plan, are up to the task," the report says.

The HR bosses fear that new requirements coming with hiring reform could place their staffs even further behind.

"In fact, they believe the situation may get worse with new demands and expectations driven by the administration's hiring reforms and other initiatives," according to the PPS, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the federal workforce. (The PPS and The Washington Post have collaborated on projects in print and online.)

The reform efforts flow from a presidential memorandum Obama issued in May. It called for a major overhaul in the way the federal government hires. Among other things, federal agencies are moving to a résumé-based system, instead of one that relies more heavily on applicant essays. Agencies also will be required to keep in touch with candidates on a regular basis, rather than letting them go months without hearing anything, as has been common.

In addition to the competency of HR workers, obstacles identified by the CHCOs are hiring practices; federal pay, classification and performance-management systems; a sometimes tense relationship between OPM and other federal agencies; the leadership abilities of federal managers; substandard information technology systems; and labor relations.

John Palguta, a PPS vice president, interviewed the CHCOs between November 2009 and May 2010. He noted that they express a high degree of agreement with administration objectives concerning key personnel goals related to hiring, pay, collaboration with unions, veterans and diversity.

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