Federal HR Needs Agility to Meet Changing Workforce Needs

Hiring, performance management, reskilling initiatives are underway

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer November 19, 2019
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Federal HR Needs Agility to Meet Changing Workforce Needs

​Photo credit: Scoop News Group.

​The federal workforce must have talent, learning and agility to fulfill its mission to serve Americans "the way they deserve to be served," said Margaret Weichert, the woman in charge of that effort.

As deputy director for management at the White House Office of Management and Budget and as the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the U.S. government's HR department, Weichert is implementing the Trump administration's overhaul of human capital strategy, practices and IT infrastructure for the federal civilian workforce.

She said the federal government, the largest employer in the country, is "representative of a problem we're dealing with in society at large. As we have service delivery models … that are a combination of people, process and technology, how do we integrate the people into an evolving, changing way of work?" she asked during government technology media company ScoopNewsGroup (FedScoop and WorkScoop's) Workforce Summit 2019, held recently in Washington, D.C.

Weichert said that while the private sector has kept up with implementing new technology and HR management practices, the government contends with outdated IT, inflexible data and inhibiting regulations. "We are working under a 19th century framework when it comes to HR and that won't cut it," she said.

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Making Progress in Hiring, Performance Management

Weichert outlined progress in achieving President Donald Trump's agenda for modernizing federal HR, including giving agency heads direct-hire authority for critical positions in technology, cybersecurity and data science roles.

In similar fashion, the Department of Defense (DOD) Cyber Excepted Service, rolled out in 2017, gives DOD the authority to bring new people into the department faster and to provide compensation for them that is more in line with their private-sector peers, explained Jack Wilmer, the chief information security officer at the department.

"Average time to hire has decreased from 111 days to 44 days," he said. "Anything we can do to decrease the [time-to-hire] will increase the likelihood that interested talent will join our organization."

Competitive salaries are also important for both recruiting and retention. "We're not trying to beat private industry in this area but want to enable the people who are compelled by the DOD mission and make the choice to work for us to have more competitive pay," Wilmer said.

OPM also has started educating federal hiring managers on how to hire more effectively and efficiently and to better evaluate job candidates' qualifications. The agency wants to improve internship and career pathways programs "to bring new talent into government," and to do better at screening out unqualified applicants. "No hiring manager should have to look at a list of hundreds of unqualified people before they make a determination about next steps in hiring," Weichert said.

Actions have been taken to address employees who are not performing up to standards, but Weichert wants to shift more attention to recognizing top performers by providing economic incentives to reward and recognize employees who have gone above their normal job duties.

"We really need to differentiate performance," she said. "Doing your job is what you're paid for and should be rated a 3 out of 5. You don't get a 5 for showing up and doing your job. You get a 5 for doing something extraordinary."

She gave the example of many of her staff working long hours without pay during the 35-day government shutdown at the start of 2019 to "do their best to help take care of their colleagues. These are the people I want to reward."

Cyber Academies Draw Interest in Reskilling

Several studies show that there will soon be a shortage of approximately 500,000 qualified cybersecurity job candidates in the United States. “We have thousands of open vacancies right now for cyber professionals,” said Jack Wilmer, chief information security officer at the Department of Defense (DOD).

At the same time there’s a recognition that lifelong learning and changing career paths are workforce realities. “The notion of having a degree in one field or working in one career the rest of your life is probably not the right approach,” Wilmer said.


“We have talent in the federal government that wants to reskill in cyber,” said Margie Graves, deputy federal chief information officer in the White House executive office.
Both Wilmer and Graves spoke about the first successful cohorts of the Federal Cyber Reskilling Academy, a three-month training program that offers cybersecurity training to federal employees looking to reskill in new careers.

More than 1,500 employees applied to be part of the first cohort of 25 spots, including many from the DOD. “We’re starting to look at retraining people who are not satisfied with where they are in their career and want to try something new,” Wilmer said. Placement is competitive and after administering basic skills assessments “to suss out attitude and aptitude,” chosen employees work through an intensified learning schedule for three months before graduating and earning the opportunity to apply for cybersecurity jobs, the officials said.

Graves announced that data science will be the next reskilling initiative. Lessons learned from the cyber academies, such as figuring out how best to place graduates, will guide reskilling efforts going forward, she said.

Building Agility

The biggest challenge OPM is grappling with is transforming federal human capital management from a "rigid, rules-oriented system" into an agile system augmented by powerful emerging technologies, Weichert said.

"Automation frees up human beings to do what humans do best," she said. "What humans do best relates to empathy, emotion, judgment and context. Machines do rules, process and structure best. Yet we have trained generations of civil servants to effectively be rules adjudicators and rules implementers. Is that the highest and best use of human talent? Absolutely not."

She said that OPM needs to adopt private-sector practices such as supporting continuous learning, apprenticeships and internal mobility paths.

"Modern talent management dictates that people should be allowed to move between agencies easier, not only to better serve the mission but to teach our people how to be flexible and constantly evolve their skills," she said. "For senior executives to only have experience in one function and one agency is absolutely not a leading practice."

She added that improving case management technology will make it easier to allow people to "dip in and out of work, share work, take work wherever they want to go, and move between jobs."

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