Hiring Freeze? Time to Thaw the Organization's Human Capital Plan

A team adjusts its strategy.Despite the uncertainty and anxiety that comes with it, the Federal hiring freeze may be a forcing mechanism to invest in what the GAO has been asking the Federal government to do for almost two decades now—get better at human capital planning.

HR staff and leadership at all levels can benefit from viewing this freeze as an opportunity to take an internal assessment of the programs that present the greatest human capital need. This will further prepare organizations to manage through the workforce reduction plan requested by the January 23 Presidential Memorandum (which, according to the PM, is due from OMB within 90 days of January 23).

The reductions will be through attrition, but that leaves a lot to be defined. What will it look like to reduce the workforce through attrition? Will all agencies be equally subject to reduction? Will agencies use incentives to encourage attrition in specific jobs? Will mission-critical areas be prioritized for growth and exempted from reduction? Aside from the exceptions covered in the initial Hiring Freeze Guidance announcement from OMB, we do not have answers to these questions yet.

In practice, the PM and reduction plan will require leadership to examine where resources are allocated and which skills are most needed. Since 2001, GAO has identified strategic human capital management as a high risk area in the Federal government, emphasizing that the government’s ability to provide essential services to the public is impeded by skills gaps.

In 2017, that same area is again identified as a high risk area, indicating that there’s still room to improve in identifying and closing skills gaps in agency workforces.

Leadership and human resources departments have the opportunity to use this time to sharpen their organization’s focus. In addition to the strategic human capital risk area, GAO’s 2017 High Risk Report indicates that skills gaps—a function of human capital management—contribute to high risks in the Federal government in 15 out of the 34 other areas of high risk.

Our recent survey reflects how this is felt—71% of respondents from 30 civilian and defense agencies (3/4 of which were GS/GM-12 and above) state that their organization faces critical skills gaps. And the gaps spread across a variety of functions—from IT, to financial management, chemical control, public health, property management, and more.

Apart from the short-term squeeze, Federal HR business partners and liaisons can play a role in helping affected organizations get better at human capital planning for all segments of the workforce—including those exempted from the freeze.

To start, having a plan for where resources give the most support to the organization’s services is a good best practice for workforce planning. It will also come in handy when OMB’s plan for reducing the workforce is released.

Lean on your internal resources and begin gathering data to inform your human capital conversations:

  1. Know your risks. In what area are services strained or at risk due to workforce gaps—either vacancies or skills gaps?
  2. Identify high priority needs. If you were to have to reduce spending, what would be the programs you would most want to protect? Where could you gain efficiencies?
  3. Maintain continuity of service. If leadership needs to reduce the workforce, what roles, functions, or programs provide the greatest amount of support to serving the constituents and mission?

Although workforce reduction is certain, what remains uncertain is how OMB will request its implementation. Having analytics from these key questions will position departments, leaders, and their peers within the agency to inform revised human capital plans and respond to the reduction plan announced in April.

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