Federal Personnel Offices: Time for Change?

Article excerpt

The personnel office, in the federal government as elsewhere, is frequently the butt of office jokes and horror stories. The personnel office is an important player in governmental operations and needs to be working well in order to contribute to an effective workforce as well as an effective merit system. If the personnel office is not working well, it can be a costly obstacle to efficient operation of the whole organization. While much has been written on the subject by researchers and policy-level officials, a recent study by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) gathers the perspectives of the actual personnel staff and their "customers," the managers of the organization. The report of this study, titled "Federal Personnel Offices: Time For Change?", explores why federal personnel offices are held in low esteem by many of the managers they serve, and looks at how personnelists themselves view their work. The report examines perceptions of quality and timeliness of personnel work, especially position classification, recruiting, training, labor relations, and employee relations. This view from the "front lines" is particularly valuable at a time of growing awareness that government must be reinvented.

The research team administered questionnaires and held individual and group interviews with nearly 400 top, middle, and line managers, and personnel officers, specialists, and assistants in four federal agencies. The objective was to capture the perceptions of both personnelists and their customers, the managers, about the delivery of personnel services, across a wide range of organizational environments.

Conflicting Roles

Personnelists believed they were expected to perform two conflicting roles; enforcing rules for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and assisting agency managers with their human resource needs in order to accomplish the mission of the agency. Flowing from this conflict were issues such as the complexity of the rules and procedures, and the capabilities of the personnel staff to effectively administer the system and meet the needs of the managers. Federal managers identified these issues as the most troublesome aspects of the delivery of quality service by their personnel offices. The study found that the system imposed on federal personnel offices and managers is antiquated, huge, unwieldy, rigid, and complex, and in need of drastic change. Top levels of management need to debate roles of the personnel office and resolve this conflict. Also essential is either massive delegation of authority to the managers with a corresponding shrinkage of the rules, or additional people in the personnel office to operate the present system. And in either case, personnelists need to have their professional skills improved, and managers need to have their supervisory skills improved, through more aggressive training.

Performance Indicators

Finding data about delivery of personnel service presented a problem. Efforts to measure the effectiveness of the personnel office traditionally have been compliance-oriented, not service-oriented, although some agencies supplement such efforts with customer satisfaction surveys and other techniques. Compliance-oriented evaluators typically inspect records and review statistics to determine how well the office is performing compared with the norms and regulatory and procedural requirements set forth by the agency and by OPM. And such evaluation methods tend to motivate personnelists to focus on keeping complete and correct records rather than on providing responsive service to managers. As a result, personnel resources may be directed more toward operating administrative processes, enforcing the rules, and completing documents, and less toward helping managers accomplish their agencies' missions.

Delivery of Service to Managers

On our study questionnaire, fewer than two thirds of the managers gave positive responses regarding the quality of personnel services overall. …