Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Anticipated Changes in Human Resource Management: Views from the Field

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Anticipated Changes in Human Resource Management: Views from the Field

Article excerpt

Although public institutions and administrative processes have been subjected to a virtually uninterrupted string of reform movements dating back to 1883, the personnel function in particular has been regarded as a "work in progress" (Stevens 1995, 2). Persistent efforts to improve the performance of public personnel systems represent a phenomenon that is largely attributable to pervasive dissatisfaction with the field's traditional preoccupation with narrow techniques and the overly enthusiastic enforcement of regulations. Anyone who is remotely familiar with its history is painfully aware of the poor reputation that public personnel management (PPM) or human resource management (HRM) has traditionally endured, and the endless streams of innovations that have been proposed as remedies.

With the dawn of the new century, pressures for change have seldom been more intense. PPM's (as well as the rest of public management's) world has been rocked repeatedly in recent years. Fiscal crises, a brooding and hyper-critical public, and stunningly rapid movement in the personnel system's environment (highlighted by technological advances and momentous shifts in the labor force) have exacerbated the field's traditional problems and fueled renewed calls for reform. The United States workforce has changed dramatically in terms of age, gender, ethnic and racial composition, family structure, and job expectations. The so-called "reinvention movement" encapsulates many of the contemporary reform themes, including demands that PPM become more flexible and responsive to the needs of line managers, as well as to customers. These general sentiments find expression in a variety of reform proposals from such groups as the Volcker Commission (1989) and the Winter Commission (1989), and were singled out for special attention in Vice President Gore's National Performance Review (1993). The reform proposals that emerge from these documents include an enormous number of both vague and specific recommendations dealing with virtually every HRM technique and every personnel office responsibility. Taken together, the HRM-related recommendations are particularly insistent on (1) enhancing management discretion in personnel management; (2) increasing the flexibility and responsiveness of PPM systems; (3) improving public sector performance; and (4) adopting private-sector staffing techniques. These themes are typically included in the widespread assertion that HRM needs to become more strategic in its focus and operation.

HRM certainly has not been indifferent to such demands in the past. Witness the important adjustments that occurred in the field during the 1970s and 1980s. There is much greater attention to measuring and enhancing employee and organizational performance; equal employment opportunity and affirmative action policies designed and implemented by personnel offices have contributed greatly to the diversity of the public workforce; staffing techniques have become more sophisticated; employee benefit systems have expanded; and job designs and processes have become more creative. These modifications in the practice of HRM represent incremental modifications--not fundamental or revolutionary change.

Due in part to the reform culture that now dominates public administration, however, HRM is presently experiencing a near revolution in its operating practices. Cherished techniques are reportedly being abandoned, and a profusion of new approaches to the HRM function is taking hold within the personnel profession. Pervasive control techniques are yielding to a consultative role for the personnel office. HRM is purportedly being viewed as a strategic staff enterprise aligned with organizational values, mission, and vision. Personnel functions are being decentralized to lower levels of public organizations. Change appears to be occurring so quickly that it almost has become necessary to learn a new language as terms and acronyms are coined to reflect developments in the field. …

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