You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Work Here (or Maybe You Do)

By on February 24, 2016 in Human Resources with 21 Comments

Image of stressed out employee holding his head in despair

Following the retirement of OPM Chief Information Officer (CIO) Donna Seymour, Federal Times wrote an interesting article, Want to be a federal CIO? There are plenty of job openings, highlighting the recent turnover in federal CIO positions.

Turnover in management Chief positions, commonly referred to as a group as CXOs, is high. Since I left DHS less than 5 years ago, for example, 23 of 27 Chief Human Capital Officer positions have turned over. That’s a 5-year turnover rate of 85%.

The turnover is not limited to CHCOs and CIOs, but it appears the CXOs have a much higher turnover rate than the Senior Executive Service in general. It is not that SES turnover is low – in the same 5-year period, 4156 of 7000 senior execs left government, for an SES turnover rate of 59.4%. Is this level of turnover a problem?

I believe it is a big problem. While CXOs are not running the missions of agencies, they are running functions that enable the mission to be carried out.

Imagine an agency with no technology, no people, no money, and no ability to contract for anything. Without the CIO, CHCO, CFO and CPO/CAO organizations, the missions of every agency would grind to a halt. If there was no other reason than that, the turnover in CXO positions would be harmful. But – that is not all there is. The other tremendous problem this turnover creates is the nature of the work and the transformative change all of the CXO functions require.

These jobs cannot have a short-term focus. Major information technology projects, for example, often take years to implement. Even when the project itself can be implemented relatively quickly, the planning an acquisition processes can take long than the project itself. One former colleague at Homeland Security told me it took him 18 months to award a contract for a 6-month project.

The big projects are not the only problem. Some CXO services, such as Human Resources and Acquisition, are notoriously in need of modernization. Ask most federal managers what their biggest problems are and they will say HR and procurement. That means these organizations need stable leadership that can identify needed improvements and see them through to completion. More and more we are seeing that it does not happen.

One of the big problems is the jobs themselves. To be honest, they do not look like the greatest jobs in the world. The pay for most CXO positions is well below average, the jobs are turning into political footballs, they often get no support from the agency head, and money for programs has dried up.

Let’s look at CIOs as an example. CIO magazine reported that average CIO pay in 2015 was $157K – $262.5K. That average includes a lot of small companies. Network World did a study in 2015 looking at the salaries of Fortune 500 companies and found 25 that disclosed their CIO’s salary. The lowest paid CIO in that group (one of only 3 that made less than $1 million) made $788K. Even though federal CIOs may have IT programs and budgets that far exceed most of the Fortune 500, CIOs in Cabinet-level organizations typically make a maximum of $185,100. Add in a bonus and total pay is unlikely to exceed $200K.

CIOs are not the only ones who can make the big bucks. HR Executive magazine reports onto top paid HR leaders annually (based on SEC filings). The most recent report showed number 50 made $1.88 million. I am not saying a federal HR executive should make millions, but the SES max of $185.1K is not competitive for the type of talent the government needs. The same kind of pay disparity exists for CFOs as well. In addition to pay, there are other perks that the government is missing. There are no corporate jets. There is no first class travel. There are no expense accounts. There are no severance packages when something goes wrong.

But the government does offer something that the biggest companies in the private sector are generally missing. The pleasure of oversight. Inspectors General. Congressional Committees. The Government Accountability Office. The press. The ability to be used as a piñata when something goes wrong.

So – for a lot less money and benefits, federal CXOs get to be the target of the wrath of all of the people who are frustrated with the federal government. Sometimes it is just political theater, but it is sometimes much deeper than that. When Senators and Representatives and GAO and IGs are angry about a failure in an agency, or when they see a problem that they have been pointing out for years go unresolved, they need someone to beat up to make a point. That someone is often the CXO.

The biggest of the CXO positions – those in the larger Cabinet-level Departments – are also problematic because of the way agencies are structured and funded. The bulk of the activity and money is in the components/bureaus/agencies and not at the Department level. Trying to get things done at that level is difficult and sometimes impossible.

There was one program we were trying to get in place at DHS that I began because of a direct order from then-Secretary Janet Napolitano. Six months later, the Departmental bureaucracy was still trying to decide if it was a good idea. Even when the Secretary is pushing something, the bureaucratic inertia can kill it.

So – maybe you do have to be crazy to want one of these jobs. Seven years ago I was a career SES at the Defense Logistics Agency. I had a great job in an agency that I thought (and still think) was one of the best in government. I was offered two CHCO jobs in the same week – at DoD and DHS. I accepted the DHS position and switched from a career SES to a political appointment. Almost everyone I knew told me I was crazy. Maybe the jury is still out on that idea, but I do think that these jobs are still worth having and they are a place where someone can make a difference. You will not get rich, you will not get a lot of perks, you may end up in the newspaper (and not in a good way), and you may end up testifying before a hostile committee on the Hill. All of those are occupational hazards that come with being a public servant.

The opportunity to make a difference, no matter how hard it is to do, is the payoff that drives most civil servants. Crazy? Probably. Worth doing? Absolutely.

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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