Is Half a Workforce Strategy Better Than None?

By on November 22, 2015 in Human Resources with 2 Comments

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Federal agencies are getting more and more pressure to create workforce strategies. OMB’s Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act guidance requires it. The Department of Defense has a statutory requirement to report its workforce plans to Congress.  Whether it is called a Human Capital Strategic Plan, Workforce Strategy, Workforce Plan, or something else, it usually takes the form of some projection of an agency’s civil service workforce requirements.

Workforce plans can be simple documents that project the numbers, types and grades of positions the agency expects to need, or grand wish lists that fantasize about the huge budget increases the agency wants to support its ideal workforce of the future. I have seen both types, along with everything in between.

One problem we see is that most workforce plans address only the federal employee side of the mix. Agencies often go into great detail when they identify the skills and competencies they need for their own employees, then do very little to identify what they need when they use contractors to do the work.

The result, particularly in segments of organizations that rely on a mix of Feds and contractors, is half a plan.

Regardless of your opinion on the federal employee/contractor issue, it is clear that agencies need to do a better job of planning for their workforce requirements.  A good workforce plan, supported by skill and competency requirements for every job, not just the federal positions, would make it far easier for an agency to meet those requirements. It is no wonder that agencies have trouble recruiting when much of their hiring is on autopilot – simply filling jobs as they become vacant or as a manager decides to create them.

The Defense Department requirement is actually a good idea. It calls for:

(2) A plan of action for developing and reshaping the civilian employee workforce of the Department to address the gaps in critical skills and competencies identified under paragraph (1)(D), including—

(A) specific recruiting and retention goals, especially in areas identified as critical skills and competencies under paragraph (1), including the program objectives of the Department to be achieved through such goals and the funding needed to achieve such goals;

(B) specific strategies for developing, training, deploying, compensating, and motivating the civilian employee workforce of the Department, including the program objectives of the Department to be achieved through such strategies and the funding needed to implement such strategies;

(C) any incentives necessary to attract or retain any civilian personnel possessing the skills and competencies identified under paragraph (1);

(D) any changes in the number of personnel authorized in any category of personnel listed in subsection (f)(1) or in the acquisition workforce that may be needed to address such gaps and effectively meet the needs of the Department;

(E) any changes in resources or in the rates or methods of pay for any category of personnel listed in subsection (f)(1) or in the acquisition workforce that may be needed to address inequities and ensure that the Department has full access to appropriately qualified personnel to address such gaps and meet the needs of the Department; and

(F) any legislative changes that may be necessary to achieve the goals referred to in subparagraph (A).

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in 2014 that DoD had not yet completed work on the requirement to determine “the appropriate mix of military, civilian, and contractor personnel capabilities” required by the law.  That’s understandable. The requirement is a very big bite for DoD. With 700,000 civilians, more than 2,000,000 active duty, Guard and Reserve personnel, and hundreds of thousands of contractors, determining the best mix is challenging to do at a macro, department-wide level.

What is difficult or impossible for 3 or 4 million jobs is much easier and is necessary for smaller numbers. Other departments do not have the huge numbers DoD is faced with analyzing, and certainly could do workforce plans that identify the critical skills and competencies they need to carry out their missions. Like any big task, this one is best done by starting with smaller segments of the organization and with a phased approach that begins with the requirements before trying to decide whether jobs should be done by federal workers, contractors, or a combination of both.

Filling some jobs at the full performance level takes time. If they are in a critical field such as cybersecurity, there is tremendous competition among agencies and with the private sector.

If an agency determines it needs to hire at the entry level and train people to do a job rather than hiring at the full-performance level, it needs to know its requirements at least a year or two in advance. That requires a plan. It needs to know what it is going to train those folks to do. That requires a plan. It needs to know what it would want a contractor to do if it decides to outsource all or part of the work. That requires a plan. It needs to know what the labor market looks like for the competencies it needs. And, yes – that requires a plan.

So the bottom line is that an agency may find itself in a mess if it fails to do good up-front planning for its talent requirements. We can blame the hiring process, or we can blame the contracting process, but even fixing both of those processes will not help if agencies do not know what kind of skills and competencies they need.

So – to answer the question I began with, half a workforce plan is better than none, but we should not forget that a civilian workforce plan is only a beginning. More is required and must be done to hire or acquire the talent agencies need to accomplish their missions.

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal's blog, ChiefHRO.com, and has been reposted here with permission from the author. Visit ChiefHRO.com to read more of Jeff's articles regarding federal human resources and other current events along with his insights on reforming the HR system.

© 2016 Jeff Neal. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Jeff Neal.

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About the Author

Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. He formerly served in the Obama Administration as Chief Human Capital Officer for the Department of Homeland Security and Chief Human Resources Officer for the Defense Logistics Agency. Jeff is also a Fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration and a Partnership for Public Service SAGE.

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