HR Magazine - June 2000: Public Sector HR: Leaving Bureaucracy Behind

By Carla Joinson Jun 1, 2000
HR Magazine, June 2000

Vol. 45, No. 6

As some governments grow more businesslike and less bureaucractic, public sector HR jobs grow moreappealing.

Any HR professional would be proud to see her wellness program win national recognition, or to see a completely revamped employee development program receive a governor’s medal from her state.

Connie Wood, SPHR, leads a team that has attained both of those honors. Wood doesn’t head a high-powered consulting firm or the HR division of a major corporation. She is associate director of human resources at Arizona State University—in other words, a government employee.

“The innovation and empowerment are what keep me here,” she says. Wood, who works in Tempe, Ariz., is particularly excited right now about a project she’s developing called a “career band,” which is designed to broaden the university’s traditional employee grade and classification system.

Terms like “innovation” and “empowerment” aren’t often associated with public sector employment. Nor is the high level of job satisfaction that many HR professionals like Wood say they find there.

Wood says that, because of an increasing sense of accountability and rising public expectations, “the differences in the public and private sectors over the last 10 to 15 years have diminished.” Like private-sector HR, public-sector HR is trying to take on a more strategic role. The public sector is changing, they say, moving away from the stereotypical role as what one HR professional calls “pointer-outers of federal regulations that say ‘You can’t do that.’” Now, many public sector organizations are more willing than in the past to let HR innovate, a fact that may increase the appeal of working for a government.

Going Public

For the HR professional with a yen for public service, abandoning the private sector may seem like a daunting prospect. Stereotypes of government employment abound, raising the specters of red tape, inertia and the inability to motivate (or terminate) “dead wood” employees.

On one hand, many HR staffs in the public sector do face hiring, recruitment and promotion procedures that may appear rigid to private-sector HR professionals.

“If you want to hire someone, you have to have forms that will allow you to fill the position,” says a state government HR staffer. “They have to be signed by six different people in three separate agencies—not necessarily in the same building. You do the interview work, and then the forms have to be signed again. When the person is hired, you get the forms signed once more. The paperwork is dog-eared and tattered by the time you’re finished.”

Lead times for changing work rules or launching special projects can be excruciating. Heads of government agencies often are political appointees, so personnel programs can be whipsawed by forces that HR can’t control: vengeful legislators, election campaigns or the whims of the administration in power.

On the other hand, a number of HR managers who work in the public sector, or who have worked for governments in the past, say that many of the stereotypes are exaggerations. The private sector has its share of bureaucracy and frustration, they note. What’s more, many government HR teams savor the chance to hurdle obstacles and affect public policy and they increasingly have opportunities to do so.

At the federal level, for example, HR is wrestling with the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993—called the “reinventing government” initiative—which is designed to force federal agencies to focus on results instead of process. Separately, some federal agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, are leaving behind centralized HR and, with congressional approval, setting up their own, unique personnel systems. A third initiative is trying to turn other federal agencies into officially sanctioned “performance-based organizations” (PBOs), with each PBO setting its own goals for breaking away from its old habits. The Patent and Trademark Office, a self-described PBO, threw out its timesheets, expanded its use of flexible schedules and created new avenues for employee communication.

Room to Innovate

HR professionals in the public sector cite plenty of opportunities to tinker with their workforces to achieve the best results.

Dan LeRoy, director of North Dakota’s Central Personnel Division, says that state-level HR can slice through old ways of operating and make change happen—with cooperation from lawmakers. “Prior to the last [legislative] session, we had a salary structure with over 40 salary grades, which were not well connected to the market,” says LeRoy. “We met with a legislative committee on a proposal to cut salary grades to 20 and make that market connection.

“Of course, we worked with employee associations and HR people within the [state] system, but the committee listened to the proposal and then implemented it,” he says. The yearlong effort could have been completed more quickly, “but we preferred timing these changes with other changes,” says LeRoy.

Judy Backhaus, personnel supervisor for the clerk of the Nebraska state legislature in Lincoln, is another government HR manager who says she feels empowered to make changes that benefit employees. She found that public sector HR can break away from centrally implemented programs if it can prove a need.

A few years ago, all of the state’s agencies contracted out their employee assistance program (EAP) services to the same private company. Backhaus felt that employee participation in the EAP was too low, so she researched the issue and presented several options to the state executive board, which is the management arm of the legislature.

“I’ve always been active in my local [Society for Human Resource Management] organization and [through SHRM] heard about a local company that a lot of my peers in private industry used,” says Backhaus. She found another EAP vendor she wanted to use. “The executive board approved a contract with this local company for the employees I support, and I saw the participation go up. I felt that this program happened because I said ‘This could be better,’ and then worked to promote and implement it,” Backhaus said.

In Logan, Utah, “our mayor asked us what we felt the city needed to improve in, so that we could fulfill our goal of being responsive to the public,” says Bruce Adams, the city’s assistant HR director. “We suggested working on emergency standard operating procedures, by department. I see it as the chance to help develop the mayor’s vision.”

For Adams, public service provides a variety he believes he might not get in other environments. “We have a zoo, public utility, police department, public library, court and many other services in the city,” he says. “I get the opportunity to learn about a wide variety of occupations. I wouldn’t want to go into a widget factory and know 12 positions inside and out.”

Adams also thrives on an aspect of public-sector work that might daunt some HR professionals: The job’s visibility. “I feel like I’ve really had to learn my job very well, because the exposure is so much greater,” says Adams. “When you work off taxpayers’ dollars, you have to be very careful about how you apply wage and hour laws, regulations and statutes. It’s easy for word to get back to a local paper and make front-page news, whereas in the private sector, mistakes can go more unnoticed.”

Centralized HR

High visibility is not the only difference HR professionals encounter if they move to the public sector. One of the biggest differences affecting an HR career is the centralization of bread-and-butter HR functions.

At state and federal levels alike, central agencies often set most of the basic pay, benefits and leave policies for all government employees. In the federal sector, where the U.S. Office of Personnel Management sets policy for most agencies, 53 percent of agencies’ HR professionals in 1998 were generalists, according to a 1999 OPM study.

Centralization has a career effect on public-sector HR because it reduces the need for pay, benefits or leave specialists in agencies and departments. In the federal sector, the trend toward more generalist HR practitioners is continuing as agencies shrink, says John Palguta, director of policy and evaluations for the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board in Washington, D.C. The board hears appeals of federal agencies’ personnel decisions.

“As agencies have downsized, they’ve asked their folks to be jacks of all trades,” Palguta says. According to the OPM report, the number of HR specialists declined from 1991 to 1998, while the number of HR generalists stayed steady. Only one specialist occupational series, equal employment opportunity, has grown.

Though Palguta says that generalist HR is not bad for an organization, he adds that if specialists are asked to function as generalists before they are ready, the quality of service may suffer until they get up to speed.

A plus for the HR employee is that for those who can expand their competencies, their federal career options expand, too, Palguta says. If a person wants to be a specialist, job options are more limited simply because there are fewer positions for specialists, he says.

Another difference between the public and private sectors is how your performance may be judged. In the private sector, a big factor in gauging success is how much money you make—or save—for the company. Determining success in an organization that has no profit motive can be tough. As a result, many government agencies are adopting terms like “repeat business” and “customer service” as measures of success.

Susan Townsley, deputy labor commissioner for the state of Connecticut, notes that public sector HR is revamping its metrics to be more results-oriented and businesslike. “It used to be that our goal was to get as many people as possible into a training program,” says Townsley, who works in Wethersfield, Conn. These days her staff asks questions including “How many graduated?” or “How many found a job?” “We’re changing all of our measurements,” she says.

Getting the Job

HR professionals who have never tried public service may wonder how to approach local, state or federal governments for jobs. Generally, the application process for public sector jobs is straightforward—more so than for many private-sector jobs, where networking is required and the best jobs often are not advertised. Most public sector vacancies, including most of the top executive slots, are posted at government offices, on the Internet and in government bulletins, and you begin the process by submitting a standard application form.

In many locales, government is the largest employer. So, depending on the condition of the local labor market, an agency can receive hundreds of applications for each position. At the federal level, the screening process can take several months, and it can be tough to get feedback on the status of your application.

When you discuss a job with public sector HR, you may find that pay negotiations are moot because pay is set. The tradeoff: You also may find benefits are better and cheaper than in the private sector. Most public-sector HR professionals say the size of government workforces gives negotiators enormous clout when it comes to landing the best deals on benefits. Public sector employees cite other advantages, too: family-friendly policies, generous leave and good retirement programs.

Private- and public-sector HR salaries are more difficult to compare. Federal HR salaries in the beginning and middle ranges stack up well against private-sector pay, but salaries for top slots often fall short, according to Palguta.

“Some [HR] jobs are clearly underpaid, while others are earning what they couldn’t possibly reach in the private sector—that’s just a fact of life,” says Palguta, a career civil servant.

Adams says up front that he believes his city’s base salaries for HR fall short of those for comparable HR jobs in the private sector, but he adds that the stability of the job can compensate for missed dollars. “We have more vacations and fewer hours,” he says. “I have a stable 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job with no weekends or evenings except for particular projects a couple of times a year.”

Job protections generally are greater in the public sector. Many federal jobs are in the civil service, with more appeal rights and legal protections than private-sector employees have. In state, local and federal jobs, employees—including HR employees—may be covered by union contracts that offer protections. But don’t take job protections for granted. Certain positions may be filled “at the pleasure of” a governor or mayor, or may fall under a renewable contract.

Mobility Possibilities

Career movement in the public sector may take place within more formal grade structures than in the private sector, but LeRoy notes that government employees, once in the door, might move among government employers.

“We probably have 60 agencies, boards and commissions,” says LeRoy. “You could start in any of these and work your way up, jumping from agency to agency. It’s just like a corporation where you can move within divisions or go to another company, except that here, virtually all jobs are in the state capital.” He adds that the limited location can be a career advantage for some people, enabling them to make more career moves without having to relocate.

Career advancement is one reason HR professionals might look at government jobs, but in the end, public service is the biggest driver, says Tamira Griffin, SPHR, HR director of Claim Services Resource Group Inc. in Dallas and a former HR manager for the city of Plano, Texas.

Public sector HR is “demanding because people aren’t shy about making their needs known,” Griffin says. “But you also have the opportunity to make a positive difference every day. At the local level, you’re working for your family, friends and neighbors.”

For more information: If you are a public sector HR professional—or if you want to learn more about public sector HR—try the online public-sector forum now available to members of the Society for Human Resource Management. To reach the forum, visit the SHRM web site at and click on HR Talk.

Carla Joinson, a contributing editor to HR Magazine, is based in San Antonio. She specializes in writing about business and management issues.

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