Former OPM Directors Discuss Federal Government's Human Capital Challenges and Opportunities

At a forum hosted by the Coalition for Effective Change (CEC), three former Office of Personnel Management (OPM) directors from different presidential administrations participated in an open and frank conversation about human capital challenges and opportunities for the federal government.

The CEC panel consisted of Constance Newman, OPM Director from 1989-1992 during the administration of President George H.W. Bush; Janice Lachance, OPM Director from 1997-2001 during the administration of President William J. Clinton; and Linda Springer, OPM Director from 2005-2008 during the administration of President George W. Bush. The panel discussion was moderated by Carol Bonosaro, President of the Senior Executives Association (SEA).

The former OPM Directors provided their thoughts and insights on questions covering a variety of topics, including human capital challenges now and then, the growing role of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and its relationship with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), whether this Administration and agency leadership is doing enough to recognize employees and let them know they are valued, advice on engaging and motivating the workforce, the issue of pay-for-performance in government, recruitment and retention issues for current and future employees, and more.

The panelists agreed that the environment in which federal and government employees now operate in is quite negative, with many in Congress, the media, and the public questioning the value of government employees and services. Ms. Newman opined that it is difficult to rationally discuss reforms to the civil service system in the current environment. Ms. Lachance said that far too often decisions about the civil service are made based on budget numbers and not on an assessment of a program and whether it is delivering the value and outcomes desired.

The panelists discussed the roles of OMB and OPM, noting that over the years the pendulum of central control versus delegated authority to agencies has swung back and forth. Ms. Springer noted that there needs to be clarity about what OPM’s role should be for the government. Ms. Lachance said that OPM needs to be a strong and independent voice for the civil service, noting that the M in OMB is often overshadowed by the B. She said this reality makes it difficult for OPM’s voice to be heard in the White House. Ms. Newman said her relationship with the White House differed from many other OPM Directors, because of her prior relationship with the President she was able to have greater access and input. She noted that not all OPM Directors have that connection, but that it is important that human capital decisions come from OPM and not OMB.

With regard to the balance between OPM and OMB, the panelists also discussed the issue of civil service reform and its prospects in the current legislative environment. They all noted that the OPM director does have fairly significant latitude with respect to the government workforce, and it should be utilized as the question of civil service reform is explored. Panelists agreed that the General Schedule (GS) system needs to be reexamined and brought up to date in a way that continues providing for current employees but also lays groundwork for a compensation and benefits system that continues to offer attractive benefits to prospective employees. Panelists discussed while some actions can be taken within the executive branch, others will require legislative changes, which will be difficult to attain with fewer civil service champions on the Hill.

The panelists also talked about employee recognition and whether agencies and the Obama administration are doing enough to recognize accomplishments of employees. Ms. Newman said that to increasing levels the White House is making policy decisions based on polling, and federal employees don’t poll well. Therefore they don’t get much attention. She also noted that much of the current White House staff has little if any civil service experience. The other panelists agreed that it can often be difficult to get the President to think about the civil service with much bigger issues on the plate, yet that they shouldn’t be overlooked. Ms. Springer said that if the administration is not publicly recognizing and promoting the government’s employees, then they are tacitly endorsing the public negative opinion of government workers.

The panelists discussed that government managers and supervisors need to be better trained on employee appraisal in order to build both organizational and public trust in the appraisal system, and that doing so may provide more clarity around highlighting good government work and having consequences when problems do occur. Ms. Lachance said that some people simply are not good at being supervisors, but that taking on those responsibilities was one of the few ways to advance in the GS system. She said that item should be reviewed and reformed, and the other panel members agreed. Ms. Newman said that it is problematic for organizations to promote people into management positions who are not qualified or prepared with training to carry them out. The result is a broken employee appraisal system in which there is too little accountability for managers.

An audio recording of the event is not yet available, but FEDmanager will update this article when it becomes available.

Posted in General News

Tags: OPM, Office of Personnel Management, Constance Newman, Janice Lachance, human capital, pay-for-performance, employee recognition, Carol Bonosaro, Linda Springer

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