Issue Briefs

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Following is the section of a recent MSPB report on agency HR services focusing on the barriers to improving those services.

Complexity of HR Laws and Regulations


Although HR specialists no longer have to contend with the 10,000-page FPM, that does not mean that Federal HR has been simplified or deregulated. Since the FPM sunset, the Federal Government has experienced a proliferation of new HR laws, rules, and regulations. For instance, in the area of staffing there are several new or modified hiring authorities and programs, targeted to specific applicant populations or lines of work. Similarly, there are new laws and guidelines in the areas of performance management and conduct management. Without time and training to remain current on developments in Federal HR policy and the broader HR discipline, HR specialists will remain hard-pressed to carry out their operational duties while consulting with managers.

There is also continuing concern that Federal HR policies are ill-suited to the needs of Federal agencies and managers. In short, the belief that Federal HR staff have not been transformed is accompanied by a parallel belief that Federal HR systems have not been transformed. For example, the Administration’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2021 states that:

Federal personnel practices have remained comparatively static. The underlying framework of the General Schedule (the civil service personnel system in which most Federal workers are employed) has proven to be neither nimble nor agile. Its job classification system becomes more archaic with each passing year. Both hiring and dismissal processes are lengthy and byzantine.

Similarly, in 2019 the National Academy of Public Administration concluded that the Federal Government needed to recommit itself to fundamental principles of merit and make far-reaching changes to personnel policies:

In case after case, ranging from ensuring cyber safety to protecting the nation’s borders, the federal government faces profound problems in making government work for the American people. And in case after case, these problems share a common root cause: the federal government’s human capital system is fundamentally broken.

If so, then it is unsurprising if even well-trained HR specialists must spend considerable time simply to “make the system work,” with little time left for planning or consulting.

Results from the 2016 MPS confirm both the complexity of the Federal HR systems and Federal managers’ need for expert advice. When asked about factors that may cause difficulties for supervisors when solving HR issues, 86% of respondents cited the complexity of HR policies and procedures. The next two most frequently noted issues were the rigidity of HR policies and procedures (cited by 80%) and the lack of sufficient staff resources in the HR office (cited by 75%).


Lack of Training for HR Staff

In interviews, HR staff often mentioned that they lack time for training because of their day-to-day workload. In agency questionnaires, some CHCOs mentioned a lack of resources for training. Furthermore, we also heard that training agencies might provide staff at the department level does not necessarily reach line or field staff.

Beyond training, several managers and HR staff expressed a need for measures such as an HR certification program or professionalizing the HR occupation along the lines of the contracting occupation. This is an idea that bears more research to see how it has worked in the private sector and explore how it might work in the Federal Government. But it is also clear that Federal agencies need to make HR training a priority now.

We note there are initiatives underway to make the training of Federal HR specialists more thorough and systematic. OPM, working in cooperation with the Federal CHCO Council, recently established the Federal HR Institute (FHRI), which it describes as “a comprehensive curriculum designed to ensure the federal HR workforce continuously improves; and is agile, strategic, and competent. Our curriculum establishes a single, standardized, federal HR framework, and teaches this framework to federal HR practitioners.” The FHRI’s first courses focus on the staffing function, with other functions to follow. OPM is also updating the Governmentwide competency model for the HR specialist occupation, as a foundation for efforts to close skills gaps and improve how HR specialists are hired, developed, and managed. These are promising developments, but they will only pay off if agencies allocate the necessary funds and time

Losses of Leadership and Expertise

The restructuring and decentralization of HR beginning in the 1990s may have created a void in leadership of the Federal HR community that has not been fully filled, despite efforts to strengthen HR leadership within Federal agencies. For example, the Chief Human Capital Officers Act of 2002 established the director of human resources as a “C-suite” position in Cabinet departments and selected individual agencies, and the CHCO Council was created to advise OPM and the Office of Management and Budget on human capital strategies and policies, inform and coordinate activities related to HR systems and legislation, and provide leadership in sustaining and developing of the Federal Government’s human capital community.

Nevertheless, the centralized expertise and leadership that resided in OPM do not appear to have been restored, and HR staff recruitment, selection, and development are managed by individual agencies. The interviews provided little indication that agencies have cultivated deep expertise or broad thinking in their HR workforce. A common belief was that HR staff do not understand the theory or principles behind the processes; they know only that they were told to do things a certain way.


Lack of HR Workforce and Succession Planning

As discussed, we found several practices in HR recruitment and training that appear more habitual than strategic, such as a heavy reliance on internal hiring, hiring experienced specialists from other agencies instead of growing or developing staff, and limited training that emphasizes rules and software operation over fundamental principles and foundational skills. These tactics do not seem to reflect a conscious or sustainable workforce planning strategy. Agencies, in collaboration with OPM, should consider what recruitment, assessment, and development strategies are needed to develop and sustain the HR workforce of the future.

Lack of Support for Administrative Tasks

HR specialists now greatly outnumber HR assistants. Unfortunately, HR staff we spoke with believe that the decline in HR assistant positions has outpaced the decline in HR assistant work. Consequently, specialists must not only focus more time on operational tasks than on advising and strategically thinking, they must also perform clerical work. To illustrate, some HR staffing specialists said they performed “cradle to grave” recruitment, from creating vacancy announcements to issuing referral lists to processing the appointment paperwork. HR specialists also described performing clerical work that had been reengineered in theory, but not in practice. For example, some HR specialists indicated that they had to print or complete benefits forms for employees because those employees could not or would not use self-service systems.

Lack of Needed Technology and Process Improvements

One rationale for HR reductions, particularly among HR assistant positions, was that automation would eliminate much routine work. That has not always happened as envisioned. While some steps or processes were eliminated, others remained—and those often fell to HR specialists to do. Also, streamlining efforts sometimes had unexpected effects. For example, efforts to simplify Federal job application procedures sometimes produced more work for Federal HR offices and staff. A 2010 prohibition on requiring applicants to submit written narratives as part of an initial application did reduce the effort needed to apply for a Federal job—but it also produced a flood of applications for some jobs, which HR staff then had to process. Those same HR staff often found that they did not have the technology or tools needed to process those applications efficiently or effectively.

Lack of Involvement and Training of Managers

Both the CSRA and NPR envisioned that supervisors and managers would be more involved in HR processes and decisions. However, it is not clear that those HR processes are functional or that managers are well prepared to navigate them:

• In the 2016 MPS, only 56% of agency leaders agreed that they understood HR laws, rules, and regulations;

• About half of leaders thought that HR laws, rules, and regulations are too complex; and


• More than half (59%) wished that Congress and the President would simplify those laws.

During interviews, supervisors, managers, and HR staff often mentioned the need for HR training for supervisors, with some saying that even basic Federal HR training has not been offered. Agencies should ensure that they train supervisors and managers in basic HR regulations, prohibited personnel practices, and the merit system principles.

Lack of Trust and Cooperation between HR and Supervisors

The relationship between supervisors and HR staff is critical. Both must believe that the other is well intentioned and competent. Otherwise, mutual distrust will lead to a poor working relationship that is neither collaborative nor consultative. Unfortunately, interviews indicate that trust and respect are often lacking. Many HR participants stated that supervisors and managers do not respect HR. For example, at one site HR staff believed that the HR office was obliged to give managers what they wanted and (in their words) “get to yes.” These staff described line supervisors and managers who would contact higher-level HR managers until they received the answer they wanted and HR managers who would frequently overrule HR specialists’ judgments, leading to demoralization.


For their part, many supervisors and managers believed that HR staff were needlessly inflexible and viewed them as roadblock. Supervisors described HR staff who did not respond to their requests and complained about poor quality referral lists and a lack of consulting. Sometimes, supervisors were just told “no” without any explanation.

To address these issues, HR staff must learn to communicate clearly and concisely with managers about HR actions, have sufficient knowledge to research questions and provide advice, and be flexible within legal and ethical boundaries. That requires knowledge that is broader and deeper than merely knowing how to operate automated systems. However, managers must also accept that they must hire and manage people in a manner consistent with law and the public interest. Managers must respect HR staff if they are informed—with proper reasoning and documentation—that an action would violate a law or regulation or constitute a prohibited personnel practice.

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