The Washington Post

The fragile health of government’s human resources

The federal government’s human resources (HR) community is like the proverbial shoemaker’s children — they’re busy helping others in government address workforce needs while their own workforce languishes.

HR holds the keys to the government’s daunting workforce challenges. As budget pressures mount, along with calls for increased efficiencies, an HR workforce capable of being a full and effective partner with agency leadership is essential. Unfortunately, the health of the government’s HR profession is fragile.

While there are effective HR professionals in the government, there are too many who have not kept pace with the changing and more demanding federal HR environment.

Unless we invest in “shoes for the shoemaker’s children,” some HR staff members will fall further behind and their agencies will be hampered in their ability to recruit, develop and retain the talent needed to execute their missions.

The Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCO) Council and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) are taking steps to address some of the problems, but additional action is necessary.

John Palguta, my Partnership for Public Service colleague and a former government HR executive, recently testified before Congress on the topic, and offered some suggestions to help government managers and leaders improve their HR workforce:

• Good HR management is a management responsibility. HR staff members are there to provide advice and support, but each individual agency leader must play an active role as well. This includes being available to work closely with HR staff to discuss succession planning, recruiting, assessment strategies, employee development needs and performance management. HR staff cannot know what your needs are unless you invite them to the management table.

• When hiring entry-level HR staff, federal hiring officials need to target highly capable individuals with an interest in the field. Long gone are the days, if they ever existed, when “anyone can do HR.” We especially need individuals with exceptional analytical and communication skills. Managers outside the HR function should support efforts to invest in attracting and hiring great HR talent.

• Even great talent must be nurtured and given the opportunity to grow, develop and mature. Federal leaders and managers can help create highly competent HR professionals by supporting training and development programs. It’s particularly useful to provide rotations and shadowing opportunities outside of HR to help them better understand the line positions and the business of the organization. Individual HR staff members should be encouraged to take charge of their own career development and supported when they do.

• OPM and the CHCO Council recently launched an excellent online HR career development center called HR University. HR staff should be encouraged to use the Web site and given time to take advantage of the resources provided on that site.

• When a human-resources staff member does a particularly good job, make sure that the work is recognized and rewarded. At a minimum, let his or her supervisor know. Conversely, when you do not receive the appropriate level of service, make sure you have that conversation as well. Try to reach agreement with your HR office on reasonable standards and expectations on both their part and yours, and then hold each other accountable for living up to those standards.

• Sometimes even highly competent HR staff members are frustrated by outdated or dysfunctional HR systems, policies and procedures. Federal leaders should work together to support modernization of those systems. This may involve working across agency lines, for example, to adopt more standardized HR information technology systems, to share training opportunities, or even to develop proposed changes to outdated HR laws and regulations.

How competent is your agency’s HR workforce. Is your agency taking steps to upgrade HR services? Share your stories or thoughts in the comments section below. You can also email me at

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View Photo Gallery: Highlights from the commencement addresses given by politicians, celebrities and other notables this year.

More from On Leadership:

How to become a great federal leader

Rocking the boat in federal agencies

Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, explores workplace issues and provides advice for federal managers through analysis, interviews and reader Q&As in his Federal Coach blog for On Leadership.



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