The federal HR community faces a litany of woes: limits placed on new hiring, inflexible hiring procedures that often discourage or rule out high-quality applicants, continuing budget constraints and declining employee morale.

These difficulties are further complicated by the negative public atmosphere and internal unease created by high-profile examples of government mismanagement, such as the recent scandal involving health care for veterans, the problems associated with the Affordable Care Act enrollment Web site and the lavish spending on conferences by the General Services Administration.

Despite the numerous obstacles and the fallout from occasional agency missteps, there are ways to move forward and make progress, according to a recent report that surveyed 62 federal chief human capital officers (CHCOs) and human resources (HR) leaders regarding the challenges facing the federal workforce.

The report,Embracing Change: CHCOs Rising to the Challenge of an Altered Landscape by my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, and Grant Thornton LLP, found that federal HR leaders assume that longer-range actions will best repair the damage of the past few years and strengthen the workforce.

Yet while many of the recommendations in the report require congressional or administration action and are beyond the purview of the HR departments or managers, there are ideas in here that agency leaders can get to work on immediately to improve workforce management. Here are some of their proposals:

  • Agencies need to find ways to invest more in training and development opportunities for both employees and management, and maximize the return on that investment by identifying more cost-effective options, including better use of technology and greater cross-agency collaboration.
  • Agencies should continue to reduce costs by sharing services and establishing other collaborative, cross-agency methods for improving how missions are achieved.
  • Senior managers need to take the lead and be held accountable for reversing the significant decline in employee morale. Leaders at all levels can benefit from studying those agencies that managed to improve employee satisfaction and commitment in 2013 despite facing the same reduced funding, increased workloads and sequestration-related problems as those that fared poorly.
  • Even in tough times, supervisors and managers can make a positive difference by focusing on effective communication with their employees, particularly by providing realistic and constructive performance feedback that highlights opportunities for growth.
  • Cutbacks in monetary recognition for superior employee performance can be counterbalanced to some degree by greater use of nonmonetary incentives or rewards, including support for employees interested in developmental details or job rotations.
  • Finally, the CHCOs acknowledged that they need to work together to strengthen and rebuild the capabilities of the HR workforce and to develop an effective strategy to change outdated or ineffective federal HR systems and structures, including those that will require a change in civil service law. At the same time, they placed particular emphasis on making full use of the hiring flexibilities that are now available.

Please share your thoughts on the state of the federal workforce and workplace, and what can and should be done to improve either or both. You can post a comment below or send me an e-mail to

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

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