“Here’s a Quarter. (Call Someone Who Cares)”

Federal employees and supervisors are entering a new era: shared services for personnel offices. It will save money. It may not be good for those who need personnel advice and assistance.

The federal government’s personnel structure is vast and complex. Any large organization can expect to have a complex human resources system when an organization is spread throughout the country and the world with thousands (or millions) of employees. Different skills are used, employees will be under different pay systems, new employee hiring will be done in different arenas and geographic areas, and the issues and concerns will often change from one facility to another.

I worked for a few different human resources offices in government as a federal employee. As a trainer for the Office of Personnel Management, I taught seminars in numerous agencies. And as the owner of a human resources consulting firm, I visited and my company worked with federal HR offices throughout the world on a daily basis.

The personnel offices usually reflected the environment of the agency. Some HR offices bordered on luxurious. In some offices, the specialist was occupying a wide wooden desk that was freshly shined, new carpet covered the floor and window offices overlooking the city (usually in the Washington, DC metro area) provided a beautiful view of the park or mall on the streets below.

Other offices (most in fact) were definitely not luxurious. At one Army facility that still stands out, the HR office was in a "temporary" World War II reconstructed building that had been converted from a horse stable from an earlier era. The desks (gray, metal, with gray tops covered by a substance that could be picked apart by a pen or paper clip when one of the many users of the desk over the years got bored) were lined up along old wooden walls next to the steam heaters and well worn wooden floors dipped and curved where tens of thousands of feet–or hooves–had worn down the floors over the decades of use.

Most offices were somewhere between the two extremes. Several changes were occurring in the personnel offices over time. At first they were subtle but gradually the outline became clear to one who had occasion to see numbers of these offices each year.

At first, many of the offices were small. Employees probably didn’t appreciate what they had; it was an embarrassment of riches. Every agency, every facility, had its own personnel office. The office may have had a small number of people–some as few as one where the HR specialist was expected to be an overall expert. Usually this person had developed contacts throughout the agency or government and could call on them for assistance. Employees who wanted to know how much their retirement annuity would be, whether they had authority to hire a new employee or a supervisor wanting advice on how to handle a performance or discipline problem could walk into the office and get advice–usually without an appointment.

Each regional office had its own personnel office as well. This is often where the specialization increased. There were experts in hiring, experts in labor relations and experts in classification. The higher graded employees were usually in the Washington, DC area, often older and having been promoted from a regional office somewhere.

A few years ago, I noticed fewer and fewer regional offices. Agencies would combine their services. It made sense to save money to have the regional experts combined into one facility. Larger agencies would combine all primary subdivisions into one big office where all field offices would call for advice and assistance.

Eventually, the small HR field offices disappeared. Employees would comment that to get HR advice they had to call someone in Denver or Chicago or Washington for advice. The HR people didn’t know the employee, they could be hard to find and sometimes the personnel expert didn’t really understand the employee’s concerns because they did not have an in-depth knowledge of that facility or its mission. Besides, the number of employees getting advice from each HR expert was growing rapidly and there wasn’t enough time.

Perhaps the ultimate consolidation of federal HR offices is now occurring. In the future, any federal employee wanting HR advice will probably be seeking the advice from a "shared services" office. The employee may work at the Department of Interior but getting advice from an adjunct of the National Finance Center or the Department of Health and Human Services.

Personnel advice will be consolidated and advice will be by accessing records on the internet. Here is a quote from an article this week in Government Computer News: " The move to a shared-services provider is voluntary now. However, under the Office of Management and Budget’s Lines of Business consolidation initiative, when agencies need funding to continue or to modernize their HR systems, agencies will have to move to a shared-services provider unless they can prove that their independent system is just as cost effective, said Catherine Conner, business strategist at Treasury’s HR Connect program office."

No doubt, huge personnel offices servicing tens of thousands of federal employees is cost effective.

The losers in the process will be the employees and supervisors of the agencies serviced by these huge conglomerates.

In a sense, a "perfect storm" will be brewing for some. With pay for performance coming and numerous changes being proposed for the existing human resources systems, there are bound to be problems. There will be a need for better performance standards, consistency in applying new systems across facility lines, and advice for supervisors on how to handle performance and disciplinary problems under a new system. Moreover, the new systems are likely to have different appeals processes, legal decisions will impact how these new systems are to be applied, and federal employee unions will be looking for holes in the process that can be used to the advantage of employees that have been treated differently than others for good reasons or bad.

But the person providing the advice may work for a different agency. The systems in agencies may be different. Writing performance standards or hiring new employees in different agencies are likely to vary widely and being an expert in all of them will be a challenge.

Those designing and implementing these new systems are undoubtedly very smart people. Presumably they know the problems and will try to design a system that will take these problems into account.

If the primary goal is to save money, there is little doubt that goal will be met and others will be sacrificed. It is likely to be much less expensive having one very large servicing personnel office that provides general advice to large numbers of people.

The federal supervisors are likely to find their jobs getting more difficult. Employees who want specific advice are likely to find they are getting general advice that may or may not be as helpful as they would like.

One other item: Each day, FedSmith receives requests from readers asking for advice on personnel issues. They are the same kind of questions federal human resources offices receive each day. The number of requests is increasing and readers tell us they have not been able to get help from their HR office.

Experience has taught us that a simple request can take considerable time to find out all the facts necessary to provide a complete and accurate answer. We are an office staffed by volunteers and don’t have the resources to research and provide HR advice on the complex federal system.

So here is a business idea for federal HR experts who plan to retire in the near future.

To borrow a line from a line from Travis Tritt’s popular country song: "Here’s a quarter. (Call someone who cares.)" Federal employees are going to need advice on these systems and issues. They will want someone to care enough about their problem to take the time to provide advice.

My prediction: they won’t get what they want from the shared services concept that is being implemented throughout government. An employee who really needs to know when to retire or how to take a personnel action will still need that advice and assistance. They are likely to turn to the private sector for this help. Set up a company that takes credit cards for providing the advice and assistance that used to be given to federal employees free of charge.

You can’t stop Uncle Sam from marching forward once the decision has been made and the bureaucracy is on the move. Federal employees will not benefit from these changes; perhaps you can profit from it.

It’s likely to be a brave and impersonal new world.

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