Dec 31 2009

More than Musical Chairs

In workforce planning, agencies have a tool powerful enough to transform government from the inside out.

Photo: Sean McCormick

The vision: Historians look back on this time as the glory days of change in the
government, a time when the president mandated streamlined programs, agencies complied and governmentwide transformation bloomed. Dense layers of bureaucracy became permeable and innovation bubbled up. Citizens received better service, the cost of government fell, agencies became employers of choice and information technology powered it all.

That’s the blueprint, at least, of the
E-Government Act of 2002.

And it will remain nothing more than a blueprint, say some human capital experts, without workforce planning strategies that look beyond narrowly defined skills and fannies in seats.

Most workforce plans miss the opportunity to drive transformation, says Rebecca Jones, consulting director for IT consultancy Gartner of Stamford, Conn. “Workforce planning is more than getting the right person in the right place at the right time,” Jones says.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not if agencies make use of plans in five smart ways:

  • First, focus on the competencies the agency will need rather than merely specific job skills, which job descriptions typically define.
  • Second, reach out to educational institutions relative to workforce needs.
  • Third, account for the type of technology expertise required and make sure that training plans mesh with those needs.
  • Fourth, include what-if scenarios so that the plan is easily adaptable to changes in areas such as legislative requirements or economic factors.
  • Fifth, tie workforce plans to desired mission results.

Competence Counts

“We find that it’s not the skills but the competencies that a person brings into an organization that are the real differentiators of performance,” Jones explains. “Skills can be acquired through training; it’s the behaviors and attitudes that people bring to the job that really serve them well.”

The Government Accountability Office has been advising agencies to do this as well. “High-performing organizations use competencies which define the skills and supporting behaviors that individuals need to effectively contribute to organizational results,” according to David M. Walker, comptroller general.

In recognizing that difference, federal human capital professionals can help engineer the transformation of government, Jones says.

“We need to look at what the profile, in terms of competencies, is of the kind of person we need to make that a reality,” she says. “We need someone who’s an innovative thinker, who’s creative and flexible. Those are competencies, as opposed to skills. Agencies can identify them, define them and hire based on them.”

A scan of governmentwide workforce planning efforts doesn’t inspire Jones’s confidence. “A concern I have about the process is whether it’s as forward-thinking as it needs to be in light of some of the things that are going to affect the workforce in the near future,” she says.

One exception is the Energy Department, now engaged in a five-year workforce-restructuring plan. Jeff T.H. Pon, Energy’s chief human capital officer, says the government needs to foster policies that affect education — down to the elementary school level — to help create the next generation of IT-savvy civil servants.

“We need to systematically look at the workforce all the way from sixth-graders doing algebra to make sure that they can do the science, that they have the science bowls, the scholarships, the encouragement they need to become the scientists and technologists and creative thinkers that we’ll need in the future,” Pon says.

There’s also a need to consider what training might be necessary given an agency’s work. “The average age of a worker here at DOE is 47, and in the scientific ranks it’s 51. Within the next four to six years, 40 percent of Energy’s employees will be eligible for retirement,” says Pon, an industrial organizational psychologist. “We have scientists and technologists who take 20 or 30 years of education to be able to tackle some of the things we work on. You can’t drop a dime and produce replacements.”

At Energy, the average
age of a worker is 47,
and in the scientific
ranks it’s 51.

But not all employees eligible for retirement are taking it, and 80 percent of boomers expect to work at least part-time during retirement, Gartner’s Jones says. A longer-range trend will be a change in the labor supply and the number of available workers, she says. In 10 years, there will be about 10 million fewer qualified workers than needed, and in 30 years, the shortage will shoot up to 35 million workers, she says. About 20 percent of jobs, especially in health care and IT, will remain unfilled.

The National Academy of Public Administration, an independent nonprofit organization that helps federal, state and local governments improve their performance, offers a five-study series on workforce planning, “21st Century Federal Manager: A Study of Changing Roles and Competencies,” that addresses many of these concerns.

Playing the Odds

What agencies are generally missing, Jones says, “is the idea that you need to think in terms of scenarios rather than trying to predict what the world is going to look like. “For instance, there’s an election coming up. What will happen if it’s a Democratic government? A Republican one? What will happen if the war in Iraq ends? If it doesn’t end?”

Government planners also must factor in societal and cultural trends and changing attitudes. The impact of the changing role of women in the past 50 years has rippled throughout society.

“We need to change our paradigm and not think in terms of jobs because jobs will change,” Jones says. “Look at IT 10 years ago. There was no such thing as a customer relationship manager.”

Part of the answer is to focus on goals and set your workforce plans accordingly, recommends GAO’s Walker. “Leading organizations have recognized that a critical success factor in fostering a results-oriented culture is an effective performance management system that creates a line of sight, showing how unit and individual performance can contribute to overall organizational goals and helping them understand the connection between their daily activities and the organization’s success.”

Even if transforming government is a challenge, it’s also an opportunity, Jones adds.

“I see it as a way to stop the brain drain [to the private sector], a chance to bring in people who can help shift the culture, stimulate change within the organization and let agencies better align themselves with their mission. If we do it right,” she says, “government can become an employer of choice for the best and the brightest.”