We the Partnership

Trust is the foundation for transforming federal HR

By Mikayla Hyman
May 25, 2021 | Updated on May 27, 2021

Federal agencies must recruit, hire, onboard, develop, manage, compensate and offboard their workforce.

However, federal human resources, which help lead these critical activities, have suffered from decades of underinvestment and a lack of attention from senior officials. Since 2001 strategic human capital management has been on the Government Accountability Office’s high-risk list which describes programs that need transformation or are vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement. While other industries have transformed in the 21st century, federal HR has been wrestling with many of the same challenges for more than two decades.

We recently published a report with Deloitte that argues that trust is the key ingredient to overcoming these challenges and transforming federal HR. With better HR, agencies will be able to build a mission-ready workforce, become employers of choice, mitigate legal and financial risks, and maintain operations in times of crisis.

HR transformations often start from a place of distrust—human resources staff may not be meeting the expectations or needs of agency employees and past efforts to improve human resources may have failed. The experts we interviewed highlighted effective communication as the key to building the trust required to enact change. Human resources leaders and staff should communicate frequently, clearly and directly about plans to transform federal HR. This communication should go two ways—staff should listen to HR leaders and HR leaders should act upon staff recommendations.

Janine Velasco, the assistant director of management and administration at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated, “The key to any transformational change is engagement with customers and employees who are going to be affected.”

Several agencies have acted on this idea and embedded a customer experience team within their HR offices. These teams conduct research to understand employee needs and perspectives, help reengineer services through human-centered design, and develop performance dashboards to measure and track results that agency staff value the most. This is an iterative process. When implementing these types of changes for the first time, agencies should thoughtfully create customer experience strategies and continually improve these systems once they have launched.

There are other things to consider when planning a federal HR transformation. Leaders must realize that trust exists within the context of an organization’s culture and history and plan accordingly. For example, some agencies may resist risk-taking and innovation, perhaps because previous attempts at sweeping management reforms failed. HR leaders should face organizational culture challenges head-on and enact change at an appropriate speed.

HR transformations also require a leadership plan that includes employee representation from multiple levels of an agency. Governance boards, for example, provide different groups across the organization with opportunities to help agencies purposefully change the status quo. These boards might also highlight new ways to further train HR staff, and help implement either a decentralized or shared services HR model when appropriate.

It is impossible for the federal government to achieve its mission without a well-functioning HR team. Federal HR has stagnated for two decades and requires renewed support and serious investment. This support and investment will not produce lasting results, however, if agency leaders do not develop trust.  

Read more in “Transforming human resources: A guide to delivering the HR services that government needs.”


Mikayla Hyman