Use Of Flexibilities Dependent on Good Leadership

A recent hearing was held to discuss use of flexibilities in the federal government.

For years federal managers and supervisors have been told that they have numerous human resources flexibilities in recruiting, retaining and rewarding key personnel. The problem is for many agencies, while use of flexibilities sounded great, many of these federal supervisors didn’t or couldn’t act on these flexibilities. As a result, many of the flexibilities supposedly available to federal agencies have never been implemented.

Part of the problem, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, is that there is no systematic approach to using these flexibilities, nor the infrastructure in place to support effective use of them. GAO was joined by several other federal agency representatives at a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. The purpose of the hearing “Employing the Federal Workforce Flexibilities: A Progress Report” was to review government-wide workforce flexibilities available to federal agencies. Testimony was heard from various agency representatives regarding implementation, use by agencies, and training and education related to using the new flexibilities.

GAO’s Report

In its study, GAO said agencies need leaders committed to taking a more strategic approach to managing their people in order to improve mission results. And they must have the necessary infrastructure in place to effectively use these flexibilities. GAO said the infrastructure should include a human capital planning process that integrates human capital policies, strategies, and programs with its program goals, mission and desired outcomes; the capabilities to effectively develop and implement a new human capital system and importantly, the existence of a modern, effective, and credible performance management system that includes adequate safeguards to help ensure consistency.

GAO’s work shows that, to date, agencies are using the flexibilities to varying degrees but continue to face barriers. In the future, agencies should have to demonstrate they have the required infrastructure and safeguards in place before using any new human capital authorities.

  • Accountable Leadership: According to GAO, effective performance management systems first align leadership’s performance expectations, appraisal systems, and compensation programs with organizational goals and results, then cascade this approach through all levels in the organization. Accordingly, agencies now have authority to increase senior executive pay levels, but only if they have an effective performance management system—one that links individual and organizational results and makes meaningful distinctions in performance. Recent data show, however, that agencies face a challenge in meeting the criteria for qualifying for the new executive pay flexibilities. GAO also continues to see opportunities for Chief Human Capital Officers and their Council to help agencies better implement various flexibilities and share best practices, while providing strategic leadership for reform.
  • Strategic human capital planning: Identifying current and future workforce gaps and ways to use flexibilities to fill them would help agencies remain competitive and achieve their missions. Some agencies do not have all the components of a strategic human capital planning process in place to help them resolve workforce challenges. GAO identified five key principles that could help guide and inform agencies’ efforts to build this process.
  • Capabilities to use new tools: Agencies have not used some of the flexibilities designed to help them recruit and hire top talent as much as possible because of a lack of policy and guidance, among other things. OPM has since reported taking a number of initiatives to better educate agencies on the tools and encourage their use. Agencies need to continue implementing new tools, evaluating their impact, and making adjustments. Congress’ interest in monitoring agency progress is a critical ingredient to the success of these reforms.

OPM’s Report

Marta Brito Perez, the associate director for human capital leadership and merit accountability for the Office of Personnel Management, highlighted many of the recent successes by agencies using flexibilities. She also issued praise for the Federal Workforce Flexibility Act of 2004, which has paved the way for many of the reforms.

“The Federal Flexibility Act of 2004 contained, among other things, provisions which expanded the use of Recruitment, Relocation, and Retention bonuses, agency training, leave enhancements, and compensatory time for travel.

Agencies are using these flexibilities as part of their overall strategic planning process and to ensure they have the right people in the right jobs, close skills gaps and transform their workforce to meet the changing needs of the 21st century. Nearly one-third (9) of the Executive Branch agencies have achieved a green status on their human capital management efforts, and almost all are making strategic use of many of the flexibilities available to them,” Perez stated.

“In Fiscal Year 2004, 40 agencies requested and received from OPM voluntary early retirement authority and/or voluntary separation incentive payment authority; 22 agencies requested and received dual compensation (salary offset) waivers in order to recruit or retain talent critical to the success of their missions; and, 10 requested and received direct hire authority in order to more effectively compete in the war for talent.”

Furthermore, Perez said OPM last year started a massive outreach program across the country to train agencies on the use of flexibilities such as direct hire authority, student loan repayment incentives, Veterans Readjustment Act, Veterans’ Reemployment Opportunities Act, excepted service appointments and category rating.

“To date, we have conducted symposiums in 27 cities across the country. These symposia delivered training and information to human resource specialists and selecting officials representing over 30 agencies. We recently launched our web-based training tool, the On-Line hiring flexibilities guide. Agencies may access this tool as needed to obtain useful information about the flexibilities available to assist them in building the workforces. Today, you will hear from four agencies on their use of flexibilities,” she said.

Perez went on to say while staffing flexibilities help agencies to aggressively recruit the “best and brightest,” more was needed.

“We want to better link career advancement and rewards to employee performance. The problem is these flexibilities are used as part of a system of compensation, grounded in a past era that does not fully value performance. In short, the General Schedule imposes limits on the use and value of these flexibilities. That is because those tools and flexibilities are being incorporated into a personnel system that is obsolete and was designed to manage a workforce that is significantly different from the one the agencies need now to meet their missions.”

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47