James: building a new culture for federal work

You can't tell me a hiring horror story that I would not say, 'Yes, I agree.' It makes zero sense to me.

At the very top of President Bush's management agenda is developing strategic management of human capital. 'We must have government that thinks differently, so we need to recruit talented and imaginative people to public service,' Bush has said. As director of the Office of Personnel Management, Kay Coles James is one of the principal leaders in the administration's efforts to transform government. The federal IT work force will play a critical role in administration's management revolution, James says. GCN staff writer Richard W. Walker recently interviewed James in her Washington office about government IT work force problems and how the administration plans to pass the daunting tests ahead.

GCN: How critical is the role of the IT work force in accomplishing the items on the administration's management agenda and to transforming government? Where does solving the crisis of the shrinking IT work force fit into the agenda?

JAMES: It's absolutely critical. Where does it fit? If not at the top, near the top of the list. We are facing critical shortages in a wide variety of job categories. Given the emphasis this administration is placing on e-government and on streamlining our processes and making them more efficient, it should come as a surprise to no one that IT executives are a very sought-after commodity in this administration. They are an important part of what we're trying to get done. We are experiencing a crisis, as some describe it, in the strategic management of human capital, and it is an area I believe should and is getting a great deal of attention.

We're looking at ways of recruiting new faces to the federal work force and retaining the IT workers that we have in a very competitive market.

GCN: What is the administration's vision for the government's IT work force?

JAMES: Our overall vision is that we need to have a highly skilled, highly motivated work force and we need to have the systems in place that will attract them and keep them. We also have to provide a work environment IT workers will want to work in and provide them an opportunity to serve their country in ways they could never do anywhere else.

GCN: What are the essential issues related to IT human capital? What are the biggest challenges?

JAMES: We could start by naming all sorts of things but let's just get money out of the way early on in the conversation. Money is a key issue. And the problem is not what one might think. The problem is the assumption that we cannot be competitive when in fact we can. The federal work force, with flexibilities the agencies have at their disposal, can be quite competitive with the private sector.

So we have to make sure IT workers view the government as an employer of choice and as one they would consider.

We have some unique challenges that cannot be matched in the private sector right now. So if it's not the money that gets you excited and if you want a real challenge and something really creative and innovative, there are opportunities inside government right now that you won't find anywhere else.

Our biggest obstacle to overcome is reaching the IT community with our message'that we have a great product to offer. We have jobs that offer competitive salaries, and we have interesting and provocative work to be done.

GCN: Can the government ever really compete with the private sector for the best IT workers, especially in salary?

JAMES: I don't think we could have competed with the dot-com community in its heyday, when salaries were skyrocketing. But people know that has leveled out now. There are lots of reasons I believe the government can be very competitive. And it is a combination of interesting work, a competitive salary, the opportunity to serve your nation'particularly when we are a nation at war. There are patriots in the IT community who would rise to the challenge of offering their skills and their services to their country.

Quite frankly, one of the things we are learning about attracting people to the federal government is the things that attracted a worker 30 years ago are not necessarily the same things that would attract a worker today. Someone who is coming out of graduate school or college or an entry-level person is not necessarily looking for a 30-year career with the government. And they would be very intrigued by the opportunity to work on a very sophisticated project.

So the work itself becomes one of the ways that we can compete, along with salary, along with the opportunity to serve the greatest nation on Earth.

GCN: To what extent must government adopt other approaches to attract top talent? For example, improving nonpay benefits such as better training and flexible, family-friendly work schedules.

JAMES: The data tell us those are the kinds of things that will attract people to a job. So the opportunity to telecommute and have flexible work schedules becomes important. The opportunity to contribute your knowledge base to solving a critical problem for our country right now and the satisfaction that comes from that becomes important.

So all of those things are absolutely essential, not just for our IT workers but for all workers. We're facing some challenges, not just in the IT world but in hiring executives, midlevel and entry-level people across government.

GCN: One of the biggest stumbling blocks to solving the work force crisis is the hiring process. People say it takes much too long.

JAMES: And they're absolutely right. You can't tell me a horror story that I would not nod my head and say, 'Yes, I agree.' It makes zero sense to me. As we are drilling down to figure out what are the issues, what are the problems and how we can resolve this, I have asked deputy OPM director Dan Blair to head up an initiative, and his job is to fix this problem.

I'm not convinced it will require a great deal of legislation or changes in regulation or statute to get it done'perhaps change in policy.

As far as I'm concerned, the first step is to train people how to write job announcements in English. I hear from applicants all the time that they cannot figure out what the job is by reading the job announcement.

Secondly, I think we have to look at the levels of review that some agencies require before an actual hire takes place. Many applicants tell us we don't stay in touch with them enough in terms of letting them know where they are in the process, and what's going on with their application.

One of the messages that seems to be falling on deaf ears is that when we talk about the hiring problem, people immediately begin to talk about strategies for attracting more people into the federal government.

Quite frankly, if you look at our virtual IT job fair [held last April, the fair drew 20,000 applications] as a good example, the problem is not number of applicants. The problem is, do we have the internal capacity to process the numbers of people that apply for federal jobs? I have a job open in my office right now for a secretary in the OPM director's office. We had over 400 applicants for that one job.

The question isn't how do you get more people to come. The question is how do you build the internal capacity to respond to those individuals quickly, to keep them informed as you go through the process and to make a quick hiring decision so that the best and brightest don't get annoyed with the process and leave?

I think that's an issue we have across government but particularly with IT workers, where there's a very competitive job market. A top-notch IT person is not going to wait, on average, five to seven months for the federal government to decide whether we want to offer them a job or not. We have to change that.

I believe it can be done. It requires a culture change, which is probably more difficult to enact than legislative change. You can pass a law quicker and easier than you can effectuate cultural change and get people to understand they don't have to do it the way they've always done it. It doesn't really require seven levels of sign-off before you can make a job offer.

GCN: How much legislative or regulatory action will it require to bring about change?

JAMES: It will require some. But I think it's so important to focus on how much can be done immediately. I'll give you an example. I was at a social event and a high-ranking official from one of our major agencies came up to me and said, 'Kay, it would be so helpful if you could do something about the fact that OPM requires us to list all of our job openings and say, 'Must have prior government experience.' Sometimes the best people are outside of government, and we're trying to attract people to come in. So why do you require government experience?'
I said, 'I can't believe that's true, but I'll go back and see if maybe there's some policy reason why and I'm just not aware of it.' And I checked [and found] there was no such OPM guidance. In fact, that was guidance from within [the official's own agency].
So it doesn't require anything to [make a change like that] except a policy decision that says, 'We will open up our jobs and make them competitive.'

GCN: You mentioned OPM and the CIO Council's virtual IT job fair. Do you see virtual job fairs as a model for attracting and hiring top IT applicants to government?

JAMES: Absolutely. I think it will be. It makes sense to do something like that in the IT community, where there is a huge need, but also in areas where we have to do a large amount of hires. Some of the folks who came through [the virtual IT fair] process actually started to work 43 days after they saw the first job announcement. What that tells me is that it can be done. We must be creative, innovative and motivated to make a change.

GCN: What strategies should agency managers use in handling their IT work force challenges?

JAMES: First of all, [the work force issue] should be on their radar screen, so it should be a priority.

Then they should be thinking outside the box. They should be thinking of creative ways like the IT job fair and other innovations to get it done.

Then they should be exploring their internal culture. I encourage people to put themselves through a process. Start out with the problem that you're trying to solve, really look at it closely, and then ask yourself, 'What regulation prevents me from solving this problem, what law prevents me from solving this problem, what executive order may prevent me from solving this problem?'

Go through the entire list, and at the end of the day you may be surprised to find the answer is none of the above'which means that you can solve that problem immediately by a change in policy or by doing something a little bit differently.

But if you don't force yourself to ask those tough questions, people always assume they have to do it this way because we've always done it this way when truly there is not.

That's one of the things that OPM is doing: challenging agencies to think in creative and innovative ways for solving some really tough strategic human-capital issues.

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