Reinventing Human Resource Management

Executive Summary

In 1991, the Navy's Human Resources Office in Crystal City, Virginia, processed enough forms to create a mountain of paper 3,100 feet in height--or roughly six times as high as the Washington Monument. Meanwhile, the Agriculture Department recently determined that the total weight of the federal personnel laws, regulations, directives, case law, and departmental guidance required to make human resource management (HRM) decisions was 1,088 pounds.

But problems with Washington's personnel system, which affect 2.1 million non-Postal Service employees in the executive branch, go well beyond paperwork. Indeed, the overly prescriptive system has a very real impact on how government works--or doesn't. As John Sturdivant, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, told the National Performance Review (NPR):

The Federal government's current personnel management "system" must be candidly termed "management by regulation." In this regard, the Office of Personnel Management micro-manages individual agencies from Washington through the detail-intensive Federal Personnel Manual. . . [A]gencies follow suit by issuing additional volumes of personnel regulations that generally parrot, with even further limitations, their parent agencies' dictates.(1)

The federal human resource administrative system contains major impediments to efficient and effective management of the workforce. It's a patchwork of rules and requirements that confound rather than serve customer needs. It's process-driven; results are a by-product, not a measure of accountability. At the day-to-day operating level, it's not user-friendly--to managers, to employees and their representatives, or to personnel specialists.

Recognition of the problems is not new. In 1983, a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) panel observed, "The present personnel management system is far too process oriented. It is much too rigid and needs major change. . . . Process drives out substance."(2) Also, the panel noted, "Management processes, centrally designed and dictated, often become overly proceduralized. . . . Personnel technicians rather than line managers end up making personnel decisions, thus putting further distance between the line managers and their personnel responsibilities."(3)

These problems have compounded over time. Over the years, "anecdotal mistakes prompted additional rules," the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) wrote in 1988. The same document also noted that:

When the new rules led to new inequities, even more rules were added. Over time . . . a maze of regulations and requirements was created, hamstringing managers, doing little to convince employees that their employer treats them fairly, and often impeding federal managers and employees from achieving their missions and from giving the public a high quality of service.(4)

Structure of the Existing System

The civil service revolves around merit system principles requiring that positions be filled through fair and open competition, with the best qualified candidate chosen without regard to political affiliation or other non-merit factors, and protecting career workers from arbitrary dismissal.

OPM's director, who serves as the President's personnel officer, promulgates human resource policy directives that support, interpret, or otherwise implement Title 5, United States Code; the Code of Federal Regulations; miscellaneous executive orders; case law from various adjudicative bodies, such as the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA); Civil Rights Acts; and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) management directives.

Along with OPM, organizations with authority to regulate, direct, or enforce human resource policy include the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), FLRA, EEOC, the Office of Special Counsel, the Justice and Labor Departments, and the General Accounting Office. About 40,000 people help administer the federal government's civilian human resource administrative system.

"Most of the personnel laws we use today were written for a troubled civil service of 1883," OPM Director James B. King explained in May 1993. "We must cut the cord to regulations that were right for their time a century ago, but which hog-tie managers today. In their place, we need systems and mentalities that, while still based in merit and fairness, will let managers manage today and into the future."(5)

Though varying in size from a few dozen to several hundred thousand employees, all executive branch agencies have internal structures for administration of human resources. In each, directors of personnel and directors of equal employment opportunity (EEO) advise and support the agency head--developing policies and guidance, executing authorities delegated to the agency, preparing required reports, acting for the agency with external organizations such as OPM and EEOC, and generally administering programs related to human resources. The personnel directors are linked to OPM through membership on the Interagency Advisory Group.

Supporting the personnel directors, headquarters personnel staffs perform functions at the agency level akin to those that OPM performs for the entire federal service. In large departments, personnel staffs are also located at subordinate levels such as regions and bureaus. Operating personnel offices and EEO staffs exist at the field or service delivery levels, providing day-to-day advice to managers and employees and processing personnel actions.

Problems with the Existing System

Today, the system's functional operating components present a burdensome array of barriers and obstacles to effective HRM. Hiring is complex and rule-bound; managers can't explain to applicants how to get federal jobs. The classification and pay systems are inflexible. The performance management system is not adequately linked to the organization's mission and goals. The labor relations program is adversarial. The federal workplace is not family-friendly, with its overly restrictive leave practices and limited implementation of available programs. Diversity programs are fragmented, and affirmative employment planning and reporting processes are duplicative and resource-intensive. Agencies see little value in the efforts of central guidance agencies to monitor and control their activities.

At the operating personnel office level, processes for delivering human resource services have remained largely unchanged for years, and customers accept them as the norm. In a 1993 special study of federal personnel offices, MSPB concluded, "Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, some of the functions assigned to personnel offices are too often simply not done well or are of little relevance to line managers in their focus on mission accomplishment."(6) Human resource administration is forms driven, labor intensive, and time consuming. Managers and personnelists alike labor under rules and procedures requiring the meticulous handling of paper. With incomprehensible procedural and regulatory requirements, managers shy away from learning or accepting responsibility for HRM.

To what can we attribute this proliferation of external controls and procedural constraints? In a forthcoming book, public administration professor Patricia Ingraham observes:

In the pulling and hauling between the President and Congress . . . the permanent bureaucracy remains a target for control by both. The pattern of control is similar in both cases: discretion for members of the career service is to be limited whenever possible; control is to be exerted through additional levels of political appointees or other staff responsible to the President and/or Congress; and accountability will be defined as responsiveness to those controls.(7)

The Need for Change

To understand the need for change, and the nature of changes required, we must first understand the extent to which accountability has been defined in terms of procedural controls. The 1983 NAPA panel found that ". . . accountability is divided and varies by functional areas within personnel management in such a manner that everyone and no one is fully accountable."(8)

In his 1993 study of the role of the federal inspectors general, Paul Light concluded:

Despite experiments with performance incentives, such as merit pay, and occasional investments in civil service reform, the definition of accountability in government has remained relatively constant over the past fifty years: limit bureaucratic discretion through compliance with tightly drawn rules and regulations. . . . [A]ccountability is seen as the product of limits on bureaucratic discretion--limits that flow from clear rules (commands), and the formal procedures, monitoring and enforcement that make them stick (controls).(9)

Principles to Guide Change: A Vision for the Future

To reinvent HRM, we must redefine accountability in terms of results- -and we must do so within the context of decentralization, deregulation, simplicity, flexibility, and substantially increased delegations of authority.

The recommendations in this report will create a system in which the President, Congress and, through them, citizens will hold agency managers accountable for mission accomplishment while adhering to principles of merit, equity, and equal opportunity. NPR sees the following assumptions as the basis for forming human resource management policies in the federal government. In the future:

--- Federal executives and managers should be responsible for HRM and accountable for their actions and the results of them.

--- Federal executives and managers should own HRM administrative systems. That is, they should help design them, accept them in principle, know how to make them work, and share confidence that they help achieve desired results.

--- Federal executives and managers should receive advice and technical assistance from staff advisors with expertise in administering HRM administrative systems.

--- HRM staff advisors should be viewed as part of the management team, not servants of management or the system's police.

--- The quality and effectiveness of HRM administrative support should be measured by their contributions to achieving the agency's mission, goals, and priorities.

--- Within a governmentwide legal framework, agencies should tailor HRM administrative systems to meet unique needs that arise from their organizational culture, consonant with fundamental principles of merit and equity and without the volumes of regulations that stress process rather than results.

--- Mistakes or failures to comply with regulations should not prompt additional or more-stringent regulations; instead, individual managers should be held administratively accountable for their actions.

--- Authority to make HRM decisions should be vested in line managers and delegated to an agency's lowest practical level, including to self-managed work teams operating in flattened organizational structures.

--- Executives and managers should value the federal workforce; labor and management are partners in carrying out each agency's mission.

Given these assumptions, NPR's vision in the human resource management arena is one in which managers can adjust work and people to meet mission demands in a cost-effective manner; create and maintain a quality, diverse workforce; lead, develop, train, set high expectations for, reward, and discipline employees; foster a quality work environment that lets employees manage work and personal responsibilities; and promote cooperative relationships with employees and unions. The ideal system is free of political influence and embodies merit system principles. "[A]gency executives and managers take primary responsibility, and [are] held strictly accountable, for observance of merit principles and the prevention of prohibited personnel actions; for enforcing high standards of employee performance and conduct, and for taking necessary actions when such standards are not met."(10)

Administrative systems for the management of human resources that underpin this vision will be simple to use, easy to understand, self- renewing, continuously improving, and cost-effective. NPR's recommendations will help achieve the vision by:

--- creating a flexible and responsive hiring system,

--- reforming the classification system,

--- improving performance management systems,

--- targeting the objectives of employee training and development,

--- enhancing programs to provide family-friendly workplaces,

--- improving workplace due process,

--- focusing equal employment opportunity on achieving results,

--- eliminating excessive red tape, and

--- forming labor-management partnerships.

These recommendations require dramatic changes in the roles and responsibilities of line managers and their HRM advisors, and in labor-management relationships. Managers and supervisors will have more latitude to exercise judgment in their actions affecting employees. This latitude carries a large element of risk and concomitant accountability for results. Managers must have access to quality, responsive advice, and assistance from HRM professionals who truly understand the organization's HRM needs.

Personnel offices must shift from reactive processors of paperwork to responsive consultants and advisors. This shift requires personnelists to view the manager as a customer with needs to anticipate and meet with responsive service, including electronic support systems. This change in roles and relationships must include a similar orientation toward the workforce. Cooperative relationships with organized labor must be established and maintained, with unions viewed as partners.


1. Letter from John N. Sturdivant, National President of the American Federation of Government Employees, to NPR staff member Roy Tucker, May 1, 1993.

2. National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), Deregulation of Government Management Project: Personnel Management (Washington, D.C., October 1983), p. i.

3. Ibid., p. 1. (Interim panel report.)

4. U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Simplifying the Federal Manager's Job (Washington, D.C., 1988), Foreword. (Pamphlet.)

5. "OPM Takes Wrecking Ball to Personnel Structure," U.S. Office of Personnel Management News (May 28, 1993).

6. U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, Federal Personnel Offices: Time for Change? (Washington, D.C., August 1993), p. ix.

7. Patricia Ingraham, The Foundation of Merit (Washington, D.C.: Johns Hopkins Press), p. 26. (Forthcoming.)

8. NAPA, p. 11.

9. Light, Paul, Monitoring Government: Inspectors General and the Search for Accountability (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1993), p. 12.

10. NAPA, p. 4.

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