Promising Practices

Howard Risher | August 12, 2015 | 0 Comments

Government Is Losing the War for the Best and Brightest


It’s always great to find someone who agrees with you. The August cover story of Fortune, “Humans Are Underrated,” also the title of Geoff Colvin's new book, says it far better than anything I could post.

Colvin's basic argument is that computers can never fully replace people. Technology is replacing people in a number of fields and generating improved efficiency and quality. There is a very real concern for future job creation, but as Colvin argues there are many problems that computers cannot address.

Government has more than a few routine, repetitive jobs that can and should be automated; many already have. But it is also clear that there are many areas where technology cannot replace people. The problems government has to address often involve conflicting values and constituencies. In those situations the information has to be interpreted and the decisions made by people.

The two decades of experience with management systems and, more recently, measurement systems confirms data alone cannot solve every problem. The results have been disappointing.

Complex problems cannot be solved with data-driven algorithms. Many involve softer issues that defy quantification. With others the scope of government operations necessitates they be tackled by teams, in which success depends on collaboration, brainstorming and an ability to influence others. Those are not technical skills. The subtitle to Colvin’s book says it all: "What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will."

The recurring cybersecurity crises, the pressure to improve program management, and the repeated calls for acquisition reform have a common thread—government’s problems demand highly motivated, empowered employees with better skill sets. The Veterans Affairs Department’s problems as well as the Secret Service’s problems are people issues. The solutions depend on improved performance, not technology.

The nature of the workforce problems can only be resolved by a commitment to invest and encourage people management practices proven to tap more fully employee capabilities. A telling exercise for agencies would be to complete a workforce analysis comparing the skills of current staff with emerging skill requirements.

When the General Services Administration’s chief information officer, Sonny Hashmi, resigned in April, he acknowledged: “We in federal IT have atrophied real tech skills for a long time.” To state the obvious, no one from Google, Apple or any of the “best places to work” would ever have a reason to make a similar statement.

The answer to workforce management problems is threefold. First, agencies need a fully functional HR/talent management system similar to those commonly used by successful companies. Second, high-performance organizations recognize the importance of effective supervisors and managers and invest in their development. Neither has been a priority for government. Both depend on the third requirement: the recognition by elected leaders that the workforce is the basis for good government.

Instead, congressional actions have undermined workforce morale, triggered an exodus of talent, and tarnished the brand of government as an employer. Threats are decidedly contrary to the practices known to contribute to a high-performance culture. The comic line “the flogging will continue until morale improves” is not an effective workforce management strategy.

The University of Maryland’s Don Kettl recently wrote that the Office of Personnel Management’s biggest problem and most important job “is managing the government’s personnel—making sure the government gets the talent it needs.” As he emphasized, “it’s a job that only OPM can do” and “it’s not getting done.”

Kettl was focusing on OPM and the broken process for hiring people. That is fundamentally important at a time when retirements are high and, according to a recent Accenture survey, only 10 percent of today’s graduates are interested in jobs and careers in government and not-for-profits. The early exodus of millennials from government has been discussed in a number of columns going back more than a decade.

But I would state OPM’s role differently. Government is too large and diverse—it’s a conglomerate—to expect OPM to understand each agency’s workforce requirements. But OPM can and should hold agencies accountable for effective workforce management. OPM should be the go-to resource for the latest thinking in managing talent. OPM should be a model for government.

OPM should conduct regular assessments of agency HR functions based on accepted metrics to determine whether they are managing talent effectively. In a conglomerate performance data are sent to the corporate headquarters regularly, results are discussed and corrective actions initiated if performance is below plan. In this context when the metrics show an agency is performing poorly, there should be an action plan to improve performance.

When the best and brightest are not interested or decide early to resign from federal jobs, it should be a yellow flag. Government needs their creative minds. They should be an agency priority.

The president’s budget focuses on the right issues: “creating a culture of excellence, building a world-class federal management team, closing skills gaps,” and on and on. However, there has been no evidence federal leaders acknowledge the breadth of the problem. Government’s HR laws and policies, and its personnel offices need to be rethought to realize the president’s plan.

For some reason government has been reluctant to tackle its broad talent management weaknesses. Yes, there are barriers. But nothing prevents agencies from adopting better day-to-day talent management practices. The potential for improved performance as well as avoiding future problems fully justifies the investment. Talent management is at the center of recent high-profile crises. To quote from Kettl’s column: “When the job doesn’t get done, the consequences are huge.” 

(Image via retrorocket/