08/24/2012 03:07 pm ET Updated Oct 24, 2012

HR Leaders Make Inroads Amid Turbulent Times in Government

The federal government's human-resources community has its hands full dealing with declining budgets, looming workforce reductions, employee retirements, widening gaps in leadership skills and a host of other challenges.

But even in these turbulent times, there have been positive developments that should not be overlooked.

A recently released report conducted by my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, and Grant Thornton LLP, surveyed the views of the government's chief human capital officers (CHCOs) and discovered a number of agency initiatives and larger government-wide efforts that have yielded good results.

The report, "Bracing for Change: Chief Human Capital Officers Rethink Business as Usual," found that the government's HR leaders believe the Obama administration's hiring reform initiative is slowly improving the federal hiring process. While there is still a long way to go, there was a consensus that progress has been made in fulfilling the primary objectives of the presidential directive--reducing the number of days needed to fill a federal job and improving the quality of the people hired.

In addition, the CHCOs said significant progress has been made fulfilling a presidential executive order to hire veterans. Progress also was reported on diversity hiring, although the human-resources professionals acknowledged that more can be done. Interviewees also mentioned gains in increasing workforce diversity on gender, race, national origin and people with disabilities.

On another front, the CHCOs said they are also making progress tackling the shortfall in HR staff's own competencies, a longstanding issue. Increasingly, they said, agencies are collaborating with the Office and Personnel Management and the CHCO Council to address the issue of HR staff who lack the skills or competency levels to provide needed support, management advice and assistance.

For example, an interagency initiative coordinated through the CHCO Council has resulted in an online resource for federal HR professionals called HR University that provides a comprehensive suite of tools and information for the HR community. The HR University site also facilitates sharing of scarce training resources, reduces duplicative training across government and identifies the most effective training. OPM estimates that, to date, this initiative has saved more than $18 million.

Another effort to share resources to improve HR staff competencies has resulted in more than 30 federal departments and agencies jointly supporting an "Emerging HR Leaders" forum coordinated by my organization. In just two years, more than 200 high-potential individuals nominated by the member agencies have gone through a year-long series of developmental activities at no cost to their agencies beyond a small annual membership fee. Going forward, we anticipate that another 150 to 200 federal HR staff members will be able to take advantage of this forum each year.

During a panel discussion to release the report, William Milton Jr., the CHCO at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), pointed to some positive changes taking place at his department that will help human resources professionals do their jobs more effectively.

Milton said USDA has 17 agencies that have been operating with 14 different HR information technology systems that are not connected. "Every time I'm asked by the secretary to give him a report, I have to go to every HR director, try to get the data and put it together," he said. "Most times, it's just not accurate."

Milton said the USDA is now moving to shared service centers for its HR work that will integrate human-resources data across the department and provide the ability to do enterprise-wide assessments and analysis, save time and money.

He also said that with training-dollar limits, USDA has found a way to continue with employee development at lower costs by creating its Virtual University. This online initiative offers courses, webinars, distance learning opportunities, and allows employees to download books and other training materials so they can continue to progress in their careers.

The human-resources community is often the brunt of criticism, but there are dedicated leaders working every day to improve the recruitment and hiring of qualified federal employees and seeking to ensure the workforce is able to serve the needs of the American people.

This is not to suggest that there aren't continuing challenges and needs for federal HR leaders and their agencies--some fundamental changes to federal HR laws and regulations top their list. But rather than simply focusing on what they don't have, they are actively trying to make the most of what they do have, and achieving some successes along the way.

If you know of any positive developments in the government's HR world, please share your ideas in the comment section below or by emailing me at

This post was originally featured on The Washington Post's website.