The Untapped Potential of HR in Government

It needs to move beyond 'admin stuff' to champion radically improved workforce management.
July 5, 2017
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By Howard Risher  |  Contributor
Consultant focusing on public-sector pay and performance

Recently I posted a column on a website for the federal community calling for government to redefine its human resources function. I pointed out that HR offices are rarely mentioned in media reports on the federal workforce or civil service reform and that the only reference to HR in President Trump's proposed 2018 budget is in a discussion of problems attributable to the "more than 3,400 Federal personnel regulatory provisions."

Clearly the HR function does not play an important role in federal operations, and for the most part that's true as well at the state and local levels. I've written frequently about HR in government and the need to transform it into a leader of initiatives to improve employee performance. But this recent column seems to have really struck a nerve, judging by some of the caustic readers' comments posted at its end:

We have HR? Really? Who knew!

So true -- we removed a huge number of them since that is just 'admin stuff', and relegated them to mostly pushing HR paperwork.

The dirty little secret in government is there is no such thing as HR as found in the private sector. HR in government is a trough in which a bunch of bureaucrats, moving at glacial speed, feed. They all are very adept at following the rules and ensuring that minutiae ... is observed to the letter.

HR is the perfect place to count days until retirement, just so long as you hold your tongue and leave common sense at the door when you come to work.

HR is now more of a DMVesque operation, moving at the speed of calendar, able to delay processing by weeks through rejection of paperwork without explanation, needing days to move from point A to Point B. ...

HR is a punchline in my agency.

The unfortunate reality is that HR is indeed too often a punchline for the public workforce. At the federal level, the HR function was defined decades ago to administer those 3,400 regulations along with federal employee benefits. The last important change was with the Civil Service Act of 1978, which created the Office of Personnel Management to replace the Civil Service Commission. Otherwise the federal civil service system and the HR function that administers it have not changed much in a century. That's a damning statement.

The laws enacted a century ago were needed to end the spoils system. They improved government at every level, but they have become barriers to effective workforce management. Aiming to remove those barriers, some states and local governments have initiated civil service reforms over the past two decades. But most have not. Studies are needed both to confirm the benefits of reform and to document how existing statutes are an impediment to introducing the changes needed to raise workforce performance levels.

Private-sector employers also operate under employment laws written to protect employee rights and prevent bias and abuse. But while those laws limit employers' freedom to act, they have not kept companies from introducing new and radically different work-management practices that have produced significant improvements in employee performance and productivity.

To bring that kind of change to government, a good start would be to take a page from the private sector and create the position of chief human resources officer. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, the authors argue that a good CHRO can have more impact on a company than any other C-suite executive by focusing "on business results, not only people outcomes" and "pushing fellow leaders, not just supporting them or serving them." Research confirms that's accurate, and that new approaches to the management of work can raise performance levels significantly.

To clear the way for new approaches, public employers need to first acknowledge that existing people-management practices are badly dated. Experience shows that employees are more engaged and productive when they are challenged and empowered. To this point, public employers have emphasized technology and metrics, but those gains have been disappointing. They ignore the social psychology that governs worker behavior. That's where HR specialists -- with their function redefined more broadly and empowered as champions of reform -- could play a vital role.

So far, though, there's been far too little progress toward redefining HR in government to give the function a more proactive role in improving workforce performance. Public employers are missing an opportunity.

Have a comment -- caustic or otherwise -- on HR within your organization? Send them to me at h.risher@verizon.net. I may quote from selected comments in a future column.