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Proposal for Achieving a High-
Proposal to Rethink the Organization and Role of HR
This proposal grew out of a paper, “Strengthening the Federal Workforce,” written by Steve Condrey and two colleagues – part of a project, Memos to National Leaders, jointly sponsored by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) and the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA). Steve is the President elect of ASPA. The paper argued for the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to “take a leadership role and substantially bolster its efforts to ensure the presence of a stable and high performing federal workforce.”
The proposal concurs with the need to upgrade and expand OPM’s role, but departs
from the Condrey et al recommendation by calling for the review to be broader than
an evaluation of OPM’s role and Title 5-
The goal is to identify best practices in HR relevant to building and managing a high performing government workforce. Best practices will be identified from a review of recent literature, contacts with recognized academic and consulting experts along with HR executives in corporations recognized for effective HR practices. An advisory group of former government HR executives will be asked to review the best practices for their applicability to public sector employers.
The product of the study will be similar to the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence. To borrow the Baldrige language, “the Criteria are a set of questions about critical aspects of managing and performing as an organization. These questions work together as a unique, integrated performance management framework.” Here, the criteria will be defined for use by public employers to assess existing HR policies and practices and to develop plans for enhancing the effectiveness of the function.
Barriers to Effectiveness
The human resources management function does not, of course, operate in a vacuum. One of the barriers to effectiveness is the way HR offices are sometimes viewed by executives, managers and employees. The provocative and often cited essay, “Why We Hate HR” from Fast Company discusses the reasons for the barriers. Best practices are those that meet or exceed the expectations of the managers who look to HR for help in managing people.
It is for that reason that any organization working to redefine the role of HR and enhance the effectiveness of the function should involve executives and managers in the planning. They are the ‘customers’ and will decide if HR is effective. A possible first step is a survey or series of focus groups to learn what managers think of the HR office and its policies. Their input will also be important to the planning of new policies.
Government is clearly not the same as the private sector but experience with the New Public Management supports the value of considering and possibly adapting ideas proven in other sectors to the government context. In the same vein, it would be valuable to consider and highlight proven innovations adopted by national governments.
A great deal has been published on the role of human resource management in contemporary organizations. Over the past two decades, technology has changed the world of work, the pace of change has accelerated in product/service markets, new work management practices have been introduced to support and encourage high performance and employee knowledge has become a strategic consideration. These changes have raised the importance of effective workforce management.
One of the broad management trends is to delegate decision making to the lowest levels, holding local managers and their people accountable for results. It can involve delegated control of staffing and pay decisions. That contributes to higher performance but it is also contrary to traditional government practice.
In addition, young, millennial workers enter the workforce with different attitudes toward work that have been documented in numerous publications. Their expectations may not be satisfied in a traditional government work environment. They are the future and their importance should prompt the reconsideration of existing policies and practices.
A final point is that the budget cuts and staff reductions are still unfolding. Public agencies are feeling the pressure “to do more with less.” Despite the importance of sustaining or elevating employee performance, HR offices have been hard hit by staff reductions which suggest they are not perceived as adding value. It is from that perspective that enhancing the value of HR will be a central goal.
Raising Performance Levels
Numerous books and articles published over the past decade discuss steps to raise performance levels, but it will require leadership and new work management strategies. HR has little if any direct involvement in managing employee performance, but is often the focus for initiating needed changes. This represents a new challenge and broader role for HR, and will necessitate the development of skills new to many in HR.
The need to address the role of HR is related to the question of civil service reform. This study should provide input to the planning, but civil service reform is a broader problem. Moreover, it is also true that meaningful reform is unlikely until the role of HR is redefined. Reform is far more than passing legislation.
In the U.S., reform will necessitate the reconsideration of Title 5, the legislation that sets forth the framework for the federal civil service. That statute is now more than 60 years old and reflects a very different era. The associated policies, regulations and system models no longer provide for the effective management of government employees. Over the years that philosophy influenced policy makers at all levels of government along with other national governments.
Actually, the study conclusions should be relevant to all organizations where there is a ‘headquarters HR office’ that oversees HR offices of regional or subsidiary operations (e.g., a hospital system).
Important to this study is the assumption that everything accomplished by government is attributable to the efforts of workers at all levels. That should make the management of people a shared priority in every agency.
People management is central to the responsibilities of all managers and supervisors,
and true change will necessitate supporting them in the development of the knowledge
and behaviors associated with effective supervision. That makes this a complex organizational
change. The expertise to manage change needs to be front-
Proposed Scope of Review
1. The review will consider the following basic HR functions:
- Leadership development and succession planning
- Compensation (including job classification)
- Strategic workforce planning
- Talent acquisition
- Employee relations
- Training and development
- Performance management
- HR technology
2. HR has not traditionally been responsible for organization planning, work system/process planning or initiatives to improve performance but this review will consider recent developments since they are related to employee performance.
3. Where credible HR metrics have been developed, this study will document that information.
4. This review will not consider the level of compensation and/or benefits, or the
5. To reiterate, the goal is to identify best practices in HR relevant to building and managing a high performing government workforce, and to develop an assessment process to help public employers identify steps to enhance HR’s value in managing the workforce.
Proposed Project Steps
1. The starting point is a literature review along with conversations with the authors of the more prominent books and articles. This will include recent reports of studies by consulting firms and academics. That includes, for example, the recent McKinsey/Conference Board report, False Summit: The State of Human Capital, 2012. (As a blogger on the Conference Board Web site, I know the lead author.)
2. There is a small select group of academics/consultants who will be invited to provide their thoughts. Perhaps the most prominent is Dave Ulrich whose books, Human Resource Champions, The HR Value Proposition and HR Transformation should be required reading for HR specialists.
The plan is to invite their recommendations on specific issues. In my role as editor of a professional journal, I can usually secure introductions to experts in HR.
3. There are a number of consulting firms that could be invited to submit their ideas. I have contacts in several of the key firms.
4. The companies associated with the University of Southern California’s (USC) Center for Effective Organizations and Wharton’s Center for Human Resources are among the most progressive in the country. Their HR strategies and experiences could be insightful. Their HR executives are among the leaders in the field.
For most of the decade ending with 9/11, I was a Senior Fellow with Wharton’s Center for Human Resources where the focus of my involvement was planning and managing conferences on leading HR issues. Through members of the Advisory Board for my journal, Compensation and Benefits Review, I also have contacts with senior faculty at Cornell. Another Board member is the editor of the prestigious journal, Human Resource Management. I also have friends on the Rutgers faculty. In combination, these contacts should enable me to identify and contact researchers in all HR areas.
5. The 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are among the best managed in the world. Their HR functions range from highly centralized to the highly decentralized. Sweden, for example, does not have a central agency comparable to OPM. Australia, as another example, recently switched from decentralized to centralized HR management. The people management philosophies, practices and experience of these countries should be considered in any reform.
I authored two reports for the OECD in the past year and have contacts that can be instrumental in securing cooperation from at least a few of the member countries.
6. In addition, I plan to solicit input from the several HR professional associations.
Their members account for all non-
A specific issue with these organizations is information relevant to the staffing of HR offices. That could include the number of HR professionals along with their education and experience. It could also include information to understand outsourcing and use of contract staff.
An added issue is the reporting relationship of the HR office. When HR reports to the CEO, it sends an important message.
This information needs to be assembled into an overview report appropriate for individuals with little or no background in HR as well as more focused sections, possibly appendices, written for experienced practitioners in addressing the more technical issues. For the most part, the key issues are not technical.
The thrust of any reform should focus on creating a ‘brand’ and work environment that enables government agencies to recruit and retain employees who satisfy job requirements. In some agencies and for some jobs that could mean employing world class experts. Agencies should have the flexibility to attract the best in their respective fields if that is warranted by the complexity or importance of the problems.
The idea of a high performing workforce suggests that the way employees are managed
secures and sustains their emotional commitment – that is, engagement -
A core issue will be centralization vs. decentralization. A related issue is the importance of consistent policies and practices across government agencies in the same jurisdiction. Several federal agencies were granted the authority to establish their own HR systems over the years and there is no evidence government has been adversely affected. The practices and experience in other national governments should be useful input as well.
The ‘added value’ of a central HR office is not in administering or policing HR systems but rather will be in supporting agencies in their efforts to transition to more effective people management. In this era of deficits agencies will need to get the best from their people. That has become a priority for virtually every employer over the past decade as evidenced by the many articles and blogs discussing raising performance levels. Accordingly a focus will be on the practices organizations have adopted to engender stronger employee commitment.
This proposal is not intended to provide universal answers. However, a goal will be to develop a knowledge base of best practices that can be effective in government. It is also to formulate a set of questions to be used in evaluating the prospects for enhancing the value of the HR function. That purpose is best described by the high level purpose ascribed to the Baldrige Criteria, as follows:
- They help improve organizational performance practices, capabilities, and results.
- They facilitate communication and sharing of best practices.
- They serve as a working tool for understanding and managing organizational performance, for guiding your strategic plan, and for providing opportunities to learn.
That is a high standard. Government HR offices should strive to achieve a comparable standard.
Request for Feedback
It should be possible to deliver a draft report in three months. I would welcome feedback from readers to strengthen the proposal before proceeding. For what it’s worth, I am a solid supporter of the HR function and the public sector HR community. This initiative is in no way meant to be critical of the HR role or of OPM, for that matter. Rather, it is aimed at identifying and sharing best HR practices for the 21st century.
In addition to the feedback, I am creating a small advisory committee comprised of former HR executives at the federal, state and local level of government and would welcome volunteers with the wisdom and passion for this subject – including individuals from the global community. The many OECD reports related to this topic highlight more or less the same issues in every country around the world.
Howard Risher, Ph.D. is a private consultant who focuses in his writing on pay and performance. His first book almost 20 years ago was on high performance. He has published a number of columns in GovExec and Federal Times. He has played a role in several studies of the National Academy of Public Administration. Comments or suggestions should be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org.