Issue Briefs

Following is an article from a recent MSPB publication criticizing delays in how the government carries out improvements to federal personnel policies including phased retirement and hiring policies.

In too many instances, the Federal HR policymaking mechanism in today’s decentralized personnel system is ineffective. As three examples discussed below show, bringing a Federal-sector personnel policy change from concept to reality takes too long. The process is also wasteful; not designed for success; and is too dependent on sometimes-unwilling actors.


A lengthy process. Consider how long it sometimes takes to translate Federal HR policy into practice:

On July 6, 2012, phased retirement for Federal employees was authorized by statute. Just over two years later, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued implementing rules. Guidance released subsequently by the Chief Human Capital Officers Council required agencies to devise “written criteria” before allowing employees to participate in phased retirement. The first agency known to have established such criteria was the Library of Congress, in May 2015. To date, 3-1/2 years after the authorizing statute was passed, most agencies still have not established phased retirement programs.

On December 27, 2010, the President authorized three new Federal hiring programs, known collectively as Pathways. On May 11, 2012, OPM issued provide that an agency must enter into a memorandum of understanding with OPM before making any appointments under Pathways, although such a memorandum is “not require[d] within any particular timeframe.” Five years after Pathways was authorized, at least one agency was still working on its Pathways plan.

On November 25, 2002, category rating of applicants for Federal jobs was authorized by statute as an alternative to traditional rating and ranking. OPM issued implementing rules on June 15, 2004 that provided further details. The rules also gave agencies the option of using this new examination method, which was billed as an improvement over the old one, as long as agencies devised their own category rating systems. Six years later, the President directed agencies to stop using traditional rating and ranking and to use category rating exclusively.

The pattern demonstrated above is a familiar one. Basic authority for a policy change is established, which triggers the administrative rulemaking process, which is followed by agency-level directives; only after all three steps are complete will the policy change begin to take effect. This process can take a long time, causing frustration for managers, HR officials, and individuals who have an interest in a timely rollout of a solution to the problem that the policy change was intended to address.

Wastefulness. The framework for Federal HR policy change also requires that mini policy shops be maintained in each agency. As shown by the phased retirement and Pathways examples above, each agency must develop and maintain the capacity to analyze a human capital problem after it has been centrally identified and design a corresponding program for that agency. This creates the potential for waste, with dozens of departments and agencies devoting resources to designing customized plans that address the same issue.

Hit or miss. It is not asking too much that Federal employees be managed according to best practices. Yet, the reigning model allows for the possibility that only some agency programs that carry out a policy change will be based on best practices, while other agencies will end up with flawed or unsuccessful versions of those programs.


Breakdown. Finally, the multi-step process for transforming a Federal HR policy change from concept to reality assumes that key agency officials across the government have the will to make the change. This assumption is not always warranted. For example, after many years of having category rating available as a supposedly superior alternative to traditional rating and ranking, agencies had to be ordered to employ category rating exclusively because so few were using it. To take another example, most Federal employees remained unable to apply for phased retirement three years after the statutory authority for phased retirement was enacted, because they worked in agencies that had not put the required written criteria in place.9

Conclusion. It is worth considering whether the price of the oft-used model for HR policy change outlined above—with its inherent delays, duplication of resources, and potential for faulty or no implementation at the agency level—is worth paying in order to preserve agency autonomy. For some issues, a centrally-developed, turnkey solution to a problem that policymakers have determined must be addressed will be preferable to a slow, multi-step, atomized approach.