Obama's Mission: Strengthening the Federal Workforce

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Katherine Mehr

"The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act—not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth." —President Barack Obama, January 20, 2009, Inaugural Address

The Government Performance Coalition had the same idea in mind when they proposed performance management and human resource initiatives for the new administration. The coalition, comprised of many nonprofit organizations, stated in draft recommendations, "Performance must be paramount if governing for excellence is to be attained and replicated."

According to Jonathan Breul, Chair of the Government Performance Coalition, strengthening federal organizational capacity through technology and innovation are ways to strengthen the organizations performance as well. Breul stressed that people are an important part of the equation, and having an engaged and properly-sourced workforce is essential.

"The workforce is in serious need of reinforcements," Breul said. "There is a question of capability of the federal government and federal workforce to face the challenges they are facing. Baby Boomers are heading out the door. You have a new generation moving in and a lot of key jobs that require substantial training."

Though President Obama will have his hands full for the next four years, he certainly remains optimistic and is ready to move forward with a clean slate.

"Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America," Obama said in his inaugration speach.

In the 2008 report "Elevating Our Federal Workforce: Chief Human Capital Officers Offer Advice to President Obama," four major focus areas for President Obama were outlined. These include: making people issues a priority; creating a 21st century workforce that is supported by 21st century HR systems; improving the overall federal workforce by investing more in the HR workforce; and building upon existing reforms and processes and continuing to work on new ideas rather than just hitting the reset button.

Furthermore, the recommendations include the need to invest in training and development for current HR professionals, recruit a new generation of HR professionals who have a higher skill set than in the past and to make an investment in changing some of the HR infrastructure.

"The basic recommendations for the president are to rebuild the capacity of the HR workforce and the ability of the CHCO to support their new departments and agency heads," said John Palguta, Vice President for Policy for the Partnership of Public Service. "If these improvements are put in place, it should have a real impact on the ability of federal agencies to get their jobs done by having better qualified folks, recruit the best and hold management accountable for getting business done."

But with every implementation, there are sure to be challenges. And it is no surprise that the economy continues to struggle, making some of these projects difficult to get off the ground.

"The current economic instability will impact tax collection and the federal budget," said Michael Filler, Associate Director of the Public Services Division at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a nonprofit organization that represents public service employees throughout North America. "As the administration identifies non-performing or ineffective programs, those decisions will impact employees. Redeploying personnel in agencies where programs are eliminated will be a challenge for labor [unions] and the employees they represent, as change has a tendency of threatening people and their work lives."

Filler stressed that labor unions need to be involved in all discussions to modify work systems or eliminate programs so they can help effectuate a successful transition for those employees impacted by the change.

In addition, Palguta said that if good HR managers who are oriented to the bottom line and focus on the outcomes and not the processes are in place, the government would end up extremely effective and efficient, and it would then be able to tackle the challenges facing the country.

"Under the Obama Administration, we are seeking the opportunity to be actively involved in ways that maximize the spirit and dedication of the federal workforce," Filler said. "We want to use innovative ways to improve the way government operates and restore the confidence of the American public."

And restore the confidence of the American public it shall. During his inaugration, President Obama left us with this thought: "…I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America—they will be met."

First published on Human Resources IQ.