Should Federal Personnel Reform Start With IT?


Or do past project failures still have you reeling against any personnel reform?

The controversy at the Veterans Administration is reigniting a conversation about federal personnel reform that in recent years has been overshadowed by budget cuts, hiring freezes and sequestration.

Most experts contend that personnel reform should extend beyond the VA, however, to help a range of agency missions and skill sets that require key talent. A report released last week by TechAmerica and Grant Thornton found that the majority of federal chief information officers and other key tech officials believe IT workforce issues – including training, recruitment and retention – remain their biggest challenge, with one respondent noting they were “five years behind in terms of talent.”

With fierce competition with the private sector for skilled technology talent, is IT a good place to start for federal personnel reform?

That’s a question Wired Workplace posed to Tim McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. There is a huge need in government for skilled IT talent, making it a natural fit for launching reforms of the decades-old federal personnel system, he said.

“We’re often asked the question, ‘Do you start with a single occupation or go governmentwide [with personnel reform]?’” McManus said. “The need is not just within IT, so if you’re doing it in the context of IT, you have to have an eye for broader reform. Some of the challenge right now is that there are different authorities that apply to different agencies, which create the haves and have-nots.”

Those flexible authorities include direct-hire authorities and signing bonuses that often cause agencies to compete against one another for talent. Implementing personnel reform at one agency or in one career group could intensify this poaching, or make other mission-critical elements of an agency less effective, McManus said.

“To narrow personnel reform to just IT may actually create a system where IT is more competitive and gets the right talent, but you still have all those around delivering on mission that the system and structure is still not conducive to bringing people in and holding on to them,” McManus said.

A report released in April by the Partnership and Booz Allen Hamilton called for a complete overhaul of the entire civil service system, including pay, performance management, hiring and job classification. The report also outlined a strategy for taking on this massive challenge, including building a market-sensitive pay system, creating greater flexibility in hiring and improving the performance management system.

Still, the government has some lessons learned from past project failures like the Pentagon’s National Security Personnel System, which was repealed in 2009 under the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act. NSPS, which was to cover more than 700,000 Defense civilians, was plagued with controversy and legal challenges surrounding collective bargaining rights and perceived inequality in the way pay and performance decisions for employees were made.

What are your thoughts? Is IT a good place to start for personnel reform? Or do past project failures like NSPS still have you reeling against federal personnel reform?  

(Image via Jirsak/