Obama Workforce Agenda


PeopleA lot of people have been asking me – what is Obama’s human capital agenda?  I think it’s still evolving.  But in conversations over the past few weeks with friends and colleagues who are at the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of Management and Budget, and who are agency chief human capital officers – and reading the new budget proposals – I’m beginning to see an outline. 

This notional outline, though, was reinforced this morning when the Partnership for Public Service released its biennial “Best Places to Work” survey.  It got a good nod via a front page Washington Post article, as well: “Money’s Nice, But a Good Boss is Better,” by Steve Vogel.

The Partnership’s breakfast event featured OMB director Peter Orzag, who offered some brief, but significant, remarks.  First, he said that OMB will be expecting improvement plans from agencies that ranked low on the Partnership’s survey results.  And second, he said there are four things he thought would help achieve President Obama’s goal of “making government cool again.”  Those four include efforts to: revamp the hiring process; increase training and mentoring programs; emphasize that performance matters; and promote public service.

So what am I seeing as the outline of the Obama workforce agenda?  There seem to be four areas of emphasis.  They are not quite as direct as the Bush President’s Management Agenda’s “strategic management of human capital” emphasis, but they do build on the Obama commitment to make government “cool” again:

Succession planning.  In the Bush Agenda, this was called strategic human capital planning. Being strategic is important in defining an organization’s capabilities.  But the reality is that this will occur in the context of a huge demographic shift in the workforce over the course of the next four years.  The Partnership and others estimate that one-third of the workforce – about 600,000 — will turn over before the end of the first Obama administration.  This offers a chance to change the skill mix, but it also means there has to be a hand-off of institutional knowledge on a very large scale.

Streamlined hiring.  The federal hiring system is seen as largely deficient because it almost screens out top talent by being so slow.  Efforts, such as the Partnership’s “Extreme Hiring Makeovers” haven’t changed agency behaviors on a large scale.  Congressional frustration has led to legislative proposals to dictate what should be done administratively.  President Obama’s first budget proposes reform.  The new director of the Office of Personnel Management, John Berry, promises quick action.  Given all this high level focus, maybe something positive will happen.  The hiring of 600,000 new employees should be a good “burning platform” to prod action!  Best practices in places like the Border Patrol are worth examining.

Engaged employees.  Engaged federal employees, according to the Partnership, are 20 percent more productive than the average employee.  Engaged employees derive a sense of personal accomplishment from their work, believes their talent is well used and is given a chance to develop professionally.  The source of this is good agency leadership and good line managers, so there will need to be a concerted effort to undertake a number of specific actions related to their training and mentoring to reach this goal.  The budget proposes investment in training and management rotations to better develop leaders.

Collaborative workplaces.  The Millennial Generation expects to work collaboratively, and to leverage their social networks to get work done, often via Web 2.0 technologies.  To them, work is not a place but an attitude.  The Obama Administration says it wants to be increasingly collaborative.  It’s a different way of working.  A directive for how to do this is still under development.  But there are some interesting efforts already underway to develop the foundation for this, such as the CollaborationProject.org

Obviously, there is potentially any number of other issues that could be on the agenda – performance pay is being reconsidered, the human resources management line-of-business seems to be quiet, and developing greater capacity among the HR workforce itself. But if new agency leaders and the chief human capital officers across the government focus on these four areas, they’d likely be well on the way toward making government cool!


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