It used to be called “human capital management reform.” Now it’s being called “making government cool again.”
I attended my first IRMCO conference and thought it was supposed to be, after 48 years, largely focused on technology trends, etc. But I was surprised to find it had a very strong emphasis on the people challenges facing not only the technology community but the broader government. There was even a panel comprised of the various councils: chief information officers, chief human capital officers, chief acquisition officers, and chief financial officers – all talking about the people challenges they are collectively facing. They want to work together to make government cool again.
There seemed to be several interesting themes in their presentations and comments that I picked up during the day:
Because of changing demographics and the economy, President Obama has the opportunity to change the face of government service. It is predicted that the federal government will hire about 584,000 new employees over the next four years (not including temporary staff for the 2010 Census or the Recovery Act). Effectively, he’ll oversee a replacement of about one-third of the existing permanent federal civilian workforce during his first term in office.
Most conference participants do not think the current personnel policies and systems are adequate for the task of recruiting, hiring, and training this new workforce. One comment about the hiring system (which often takes an average of over 80 days to complete) is: “we hire the best of the desperate.” Those who are talented and committed to public service often go to the non-profit sector because it takes too long to get an answer from federal hiring officials. One executive at the conference said he wasn’t able to compete for top college graduates in his field because private sector firms can make on-the-spot conditional hiring offers and the government can’t. The personnel community’s “end-to-end hiring roadmap” hopes to get the hiring process down to 40 days. Is that enough?
Even with these frustrations — and even with the risks posed by the enormous challenges in implementing the Recovery Act quickly and with a high degree of oversight — managers at the conference were excited by the prospects ahead. One told me “there’s no better time to be a public servant than today,” and another said, “This is a beginning of a new era for us.” A wide range of participants said they were willing and eager to re-think how government approaches the new challenges. For example, an executive from the Transportation Department said: “I haven’t seen so much collaboration in our department before,” as it developed its approach to implementing the Recovery Act. Likewise, members of the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council said they developed a set of rules to guide agencies in meeting the requirements of the Recovery Act in less than five weeks – something that normally takes months if not years to accomplish under normal circumstances.
Even with the hiring constraints, many observed, they thought the ability to attract talent has improved in recent months because of the economy, the interests of the Millennial “civic” generation, and the opportunity to work in the Obama Administration. In addition, a number of participants at the conference said they were ready to take on big, organizationally boundry-less problems (like climate change, the Recovery Act, and healthcare reform) in a hierarchical system. So the career civil servants at IRMCO seem poised to meet the great expectations being set by the President and the public. Are they an aberration or do they reflect broader sentiments in the federal workplace?