Establish a customer experience focus.
The experts we interviewed stressed the importance of learning from and collaborating with customers—federal employees who interact with HR—during every step of a transformation. Several agencies have embedded a customer experience team within their HR offices. These teams conduct research to understand customer needs and perspectives, help reengineer services through human-centered design, and develop performance dashboards to measure and track results that customers value the most.
“The key to any transformational change is engagement with the customers and employees who are going to be affected.”
—Janine Velasco, assistant director, Management and Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services
Build trust through frequent and direct communication.
HR transformations often start from a place of distrust—human resources staff may not be meeting customer expectations or may have previously failed to implement ambitious changes. Even if bureau and HR leadership have a clear transformation strategy, staff at all levels need to understand the envisioned transformation, and recognize why it is occurring, what will happen when it does and why it will succeed.
The experts we interviewed highlighted effective communication as the key to building trust. When centralizing HR services at headquarters, for example, leaders at the Department of Labor addressed the “elephant in the room” head-on, stating that their goal was to improve services, not to reduce or relocate staff. To address the employees’ fear that they would lose control of their HR services or not know whom to contact for help, department leaders also created a detailed directory of the HR personnel who are responsible for resolving specific issues.
“Most people will take poor services that they own over better services that they don’t. So the idea is you are going to have to establish trust and prove to them you can deliver and meet their expectations”
—Tom Muir, interim director of administration and management, Department of Defense
Account for culture and history when designing a transformation.
Leaders need to understand the culture and history of an organization when they set out to drive change. For example, some agencies may resist risk-taking and innovation, perhaps because previous attempts at sweeping management reforms failed. Leaders should recognize and face cultural challenges head-on and enact change at an appropriate speed.
Navigating culture during an HR transformation
Twenty years ago, the State Department had dozens of separate HR offices located across its various bureaus and mission areas, reflecting a culture of autonomy across overseas mission areas and a recognition that staff working around the world had very different HR needs. According to Jeffrey Miller, director of the Office of Organization and Talent Analytics within the department’s Bureau of Global Talent Management, this individualization made for great service, but became very expensive and yielded inconsistent interpretations of HR policies and procedures.
As the Department began to rein in costs and centralize most HR services in one office, it had to account for State’s culture of autonomy across bureaus. The team’s initial efforts were bumpy because bureaus felt that insufficient attention was given to their individual needs in developing the shared services provider concept. But things improved once the newly centralized staff began working on organizational portfolios that permitted a stronger connection to the bureaus they served. This approach of creating a strong customer focus has been essential to the transformation’s success. Even though members of the central office no longer worked side by side with staff in the field, they eventually came to understand each bureau’s unique circumstances and needs, and were held accountable for providing appropriate service through performance reviews.
Purposefully challenge the status quo.
Some federal agencies have been delivering HR services the same way for decades. Rather than sticking with the status quo, leaders should acknowledge where services might currently be falling short and consider new approaches to address agencies’ pressing challenges more effectively. HR leaders, as well as senior agency officials overseeing HR, should consider a variety of strategies, recognizing that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to transforming HR.
For example, some large agencies struggle to deliver consistent, timely and accurate services across subcomponents. Centralizing some HR services within one entity that is prepared and resourced to meet customer needs might help address this issue. Smaller agencies may face different challenges, such as a lack of HR expertise on complicated or niche issues like executive resources, which may make it difficult for staff to get the answers they need. For these agencies, raising the technical expertise of HR staff may be a top priority.
Establish an effective governance model.
HR transformations require a sound governance strategy. Who will help guide the work? Who needs to approve changes and decisions? Who needs to be consulted or informed along the way? Leaving these questions unanswered, or failing to openly communicate the answers, could engender pushback or a lack of commitment across the organization to implement change.
Some agencies have established HR governance boards that convene leaders from across the organization to strengthen services. Members of these boards may include staff outside of HR who will play a key role in HR transformations—such as organizational executives, business line and program leaders, customers, and IT and security staff.
“To ensure customer buy-in on agencywide human capital efforts, we can move these through the Human Capital Governance Board and, if approved, know that we have the support of a cross-functional executive team.”
—Karen Filipponi, chief component human capital officer, Federal Emergency Management Agency
Empower and grow HR staff.
Transforming service delivery often requires agency leaders to substantially invest in the skills and expertise of HR staff. And if agencies want to increase efficiency or leverage automation to move staff from basic processing tasks toward high-value work like strategic planning, they need to reskill HR staff in areas such as data analysis, strategic communications and workforce planning. To strengthen the HR workforce, agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration have established HR communities of practice that help staff across the organization learn from one another. TSA also established HR business partner roles that dedicate HR staff to work on larger strategic issues and more directly connect HR professionals to customer needs.
Beware of mission creep.
Agency leaders should have a clear sense of which services HR offices can provide and where they can add unique value. When the Department of Labor moved to centralize its HR services, some agency subcomponents wanted the newly organized HR office to take on responsibilities previously held by HR, such as creating and updating organizational charts or managing participation in the annual federal workplace charity campaign. These activities constituted HR mission creep as they did not align with the new office’s core strategy and threatened to divert resources from other priorities like improving hiring. Leaders of the new HR office had to tell the agency subcomponents what they were willing to take on and ensure staff were still available in those subcomponents to deal with any leftover responsibilities. These conversations ultimately helped the office focus on top priorities.