Let’s Put The ‘Chief’ In Chief Human Capital Officer

The author says that while well intentioned, the Chief Human Capital Officers Act of 2002 is inadequate to meet the talent management challenges the government faces today.

The Chief Human Capital Officers Act of 2002, enacted as part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, established the role of the Chief Human Capital Officer (CHCO) in the federal government. After 13 years, it is time to take a look at the CHCO Act and see what it did and did not do.

The CHCO Act requires 24 agencies to establish CHCO positions to (1) advise and assist the head of the agency and other agency officials in carrying out the agency’s responsibilities for selecting, developing, training, and managing a high-quality, productive workforce in accordance with merit system principles; (2) implement the rules and regulations of the President and the Office of Personnel Management and the laws governing the civil service within the agency; and (3) carry out such functions as the primary duty of the Chief Human Capital Officer. It also identifies 6 required functions of CHCOs:

  1. setting the workforce development strategy of the agency;
  2. assessing workforce characteristics and future needs based on the agency’s mission and strategic plan;
  3. aligning the agency’s human resources policies and programs with organization mission, strategic goals, and performance outcomes;
  4. developing and advocating a culture of continuous learning to attract and retain employees with superior abilities;
  5. identifying best practices and benchmarking studies, and
  6. applying methods for measuring intellectual capital and identifying links of that capital to organizational performance and growth.

The intent of the CHCO Act was sound. Agencies need the right talent to accomplish their missions. Some people (including me) would argue that talent management is among the top tasks of any manager. We also know that it helps to have people who are accountable for the things we say are important. Having someone who is responsible for human capital management in an agency makes a lot of sense. The problem with the CHCO Act is that it was and is inadequate to meet the talent management challenges the government faces today.

Setting strategy, assessing workforce needs, and aligning policies with the mission are tasks a CHCO can accomplish with the right resources, as is identifying best practices. The problem is that none of those functions is actually doing anything. In the 14 departments with multiple bureaus, agencies components and administrations, much of the work of actually running human capital programs is in those sub-units. The CHCO can nudge, persuade, cajole and prod them, but s/he cannot actually make them do much of anything. In some departments the CHCO has a lot of influence, but in others the role is virtually powerless.

We learned from our experience with the Clinger-Cohen Act (that required agencies to create Chief Information Officer positions) that having the title is not enough. A Chief is not a Chief if s/he does not have some clout to go with it. Congress recognized and addressed that problem with CIO positions when it passed the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA). FITARA gives the CIO budget authority and much greater oversight of the execution of agency information technology projects, even when the work is being carried out in a bureau or other subordinate agency.

The CHCO Act is much more like Clinger-Cohen than FITARA. It established some high-minded goals and got the ball rolling, but it does not give the CHCOs the authority they need to really be Chiefs. If we want to see real improvements in human capital management across government, it is time to reform the CHCO Act with FITARA-like legislation that, at a minimum:

  • Requires that CHCOs have substantive human capital management experience and day-to-day responsibility for leading the human capital organization. Some agencies have assigned the CHCO title to officials who have neither HR experience nor day-tay responsibility for running the HR organization. If the CHCO is to carry out its statutory responsibilities, both are required.
  • Grants the CHCO Authority to determine all HR IT requirements in Departments and Agencies. The number of HR IT systems is mind-boggling. When I was CHCO at DHS, we found the Department had more than 400 HR IT systems. Former DHS CIO Richard Spires and I got the Deputy Secretary to sign a directive requiring new HR IT projects in the components to be approved by both the CHCO and the CIO, so we could begin to get the proliferation of HR IT under control. Other departments and agencies have similar problems with duplicative and wasteful systems.
  • Grants the CHCO Authority to determine how the department/agency will deliver HR services. Most CHCOs do not have the authority to determine the service delivery model their organization will use. The money and the authority rest with the bureaus, agencies, administrations and other subunits. That means shared services are not the norm, costs are higher than they should be, and services are not always delivered effectively.
  • Provides that CHCOs have approval authority for selections of bureau/component HR Directors. Some departments already grant this authority to their CHCO. It helps ensure selection of individuals who will carry out the department’s human capital strategy.
  • Requires each agency to either have (a) a department/agency-wide Human Capital Strategic Plan signed by the agency head, or (b) incorporate human capital planning as a significant element of the department/agency strategic plan. 
  • Requires agencies/departments to establish and execute workforce planning for mission critical occupations (MCOs). Too often, there is no planning for MCOs or the plans are “shelfware” that are created and then ignored.
  • Establishes the CHCO Council as a “Board of Directors” for the Office of Personnel Management. The CHCO Council has come a long way since it was established. It has accomplished significant interagency improvements and has served as a way of communicating department/agency needs to OPM. The next step is allowing the CHCO Council to set the policy priorities for OPM.

In 2001, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) placed human capital management on its “high risk” list. Following the CHCO Act and the establishment of the CHCO Council, the government made substantial progress in human capital management. In 2011, GAO narrowed the focus of its high risk assessment to closing current and emerging critical skills gaps. Reforming the CHCO Act to put the “Chief” in Chief Human Capital Officer would help move the government toward removing human capital from the high risk list entirely, reducing the waste in HR IT systems, and ensuring agencies have the kind of human capital management leadership necessary to compete for talent in today’s labor market.

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.

About the Author

Jeff Neal is author of the blog ChiefHRO.com and was previously the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.