Succession Planning Is Major Challenge for Federal HR Staffs

By Bill Leonard Jun 15, 2011

Succession planning for the human resource function at most federal government agencies appears to be a case of “the cobbler’s children having no shoes,” according to a report released by the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to revitalizing and transforming the way the U.S. government works.

“I like the imagery of the cobbler’s children, and think it’s a great description of HR in the federal government,” said John Palguta, vice president of policy for the organization. “HR is often called on to develop succession plans for agencies but at the same time have developed no succession plans for their own HR staffs.”

This scenario is supported by the findings of the report, which are based on surveys, focus groups and interviews with current and former federal HR profes­sionals. The researchers surveyed HR executives and managers from 28 federal agencies that account for approximately 85 percent of the federal workforce. They found that very few of the federal HR functions focus on formal succession planning for themselves.

High Turnover, Transfer Rates

This lack of formal planning has the potential to escalate into “an HR talent crisis” for the federal government, according to Palguta. While the federal government employs nearly 27,000 HR professionals, 60 percent of this HR workforce is age 45 or older, and one in four HR employees are eligible to retire. The study revealed that the 13 percent turnover rate among HR professionals in the federal government is more than double the average turnover rate of 5.9 for the overall federal workforce.

The mobility of HR professionals within the federal government was the most surprising piece of information that emerged from the study, according to Palguta. After analyzing the data, the researchers found that in 2010 nearly 43 percent of employees hired to work in federal HR offices were transfers from other agencies.

“We found this statistic a bit surprising, and it is grabbing the attention of the government’s chief human capital officers,” Palguta said. “This has tremendous implications for succession planning, because if you think about it, two out of every five of a federal agency’s potential HR leaders currently don’t work for that agency.”

In addition, this high transfer rate could indicate a lack of professional growth and opportunities because succession plans are not in place. HR professionals in the federal government appear to move along their career path largely through transfers.

“The perception among many federal HR professionals seems to be that opportunities for advancement lie outside their own agencies,” Palguta said. “This is most likely another result of not having a formal succession plan in place.”

Scant Time to Develop Plans

The elevated transfer and turnover rates, combined with the aging population of HR professionals in the federal government, are creating an HR talent shortage that is approaching critical levels, Palguta said.

“The government’s HR leaders know it. We have heard this concern from many of the federal HR professionals that we have talked with and interviewed for this study,” Palguta said. “The biggest challenge that many of them face is finding the time to develop the plans. Many think that getting the resources to create the plans is also a significant stumbling block, but funding just doesn’t pose as much challenge as many think it does.”

According to Palguta and the report, formal succession plan­ning can be accomplished with little or no strain on the ultra-tight budgets of federal agencies. The real challenge is finding the time to work with HR staff and agency leaders to develop effective succession plans. The report recommends the following steps to develop succession plans:

  • List critical positions and project vacancy risks.
  • Discuss and predict future staffing needs.
  • Analyze gaps in the talent pool.
  • Develop strategies to narrow or close the talent gaps.
  • Evaluate progress and review succession plans every year.

The political climate following the elections of 2010 presents another major challenge to HR professionals throughout all levels of the public sector, including federal, state and municipal agencies. Political pressures on government agencies to cut spending and staff are placing a major burden on HR professionals to find ways to keep the best talent and shore up deteriorating morale.

“It’s a very tough time to be a government employee right now, and HR in government is facing some very tough challenges to retain and attract the best level of talent possible,” Palguta said. “So it is critical that HR can respond to these challenges and develop the HR strategies government agencies need to perform more efficiently. All these factors point to the growing importance of effective succession plans for HR professionals in government.”

While Palguta admits that the report doesn’t provide all the answers, it does provide ideas and guidelines on how government agencies can push succession planning forward.

“As one of my good friends likes to say, ‘We don’t need a silver bullet, we need silver buckshot,’ ” he said. “I won’t say this report is even a starting point. I’d say it’s more of a reminder of where we are now and where we need to be going.”

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM.

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