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Federal HR seeks corporate simplicity, says its new chief

Federal HR has a new reformer, Jeff Pon, the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. He wants to modernize federal HR with consumer-friendly tech.

Many large corporations have standardized on single HR systems, but not federal HR. Federal agencies use a variety of HR systems that don't integrate, aren't interoperable and still heavily rely on paper. This hurts data collection and people analytics and impedes system-wide federal HR reforms.

But Jeff Pon -- picked by President Donald Trump to lead the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the government's de facto HR department -- is arriving to this job with a reform agenda. He was confirmed in March by the U.S. Senate.

Pon runs an agency overseeing the federal government's 2.1 million civilian employees.

Pon wants federal HR to be as streamlined as the private sector. He wants one system or systems that are interoperable. He wants to replace paper with automation and to adopt consumer-like approaches, as easy to use as an iOS or Android app.

"Shouldn't our human resource services actually work the same way -- at a touch? Not at a 10-page type form, but at a touch," Pon said in a government video released March 30.

Pon faces a major task, but he comes with a deep HR background in both the federal and private sector. Most recently, Pon was the chief human resource and strategy officer at the Society for Human Resource Management. He has a doctorate in industrial organizational psychology.

"We need to make sure that we move from a paper-based environment to a digital data environment," Pon said. Federal HR isn't efficient, he said, noting that agencies are "trading paper back and forth" to process HR. 

But federal HR differs from the private sector in a number of significant ways. It's rule-bound and complicated, and sometimes making changes requires, literally, an act of Congress.

The IT systems are only part of the problem

Federal HR will have to make major process reforms, said Roger Baker, a former assistant secretary for information and technology and CIO at the Department of Veterans Affairs who now works as an independent consultant.

About the only thing worse than government HR systems is government's HR processes.
Roger Bakerindependent consultant

"About the only thing worse than government HR systems is government's HR processes. To have any chance at success, both will need to be fixed together," Baker said.

The reason federal HR uses a lot of old systems is because the business processes haven't modernized, Baker said. Without that, "there really is no reason to modernize the IT systems that implement them," he said.

Federal HR core systems are mostly on premises, and in some cases, home grown. They lack integration and interoperability. These systems are also heavily customized because of federal rules and laws.

Federal HR rules are different and complicated

Federal HR is complicated by laws set by Congress for hiring, compensation, privacy and national security, said Ray Bjorklund, president of government IT market research firm BirchGrove Consulting in Potomac, Md. These rules can vary hiring processes from agency to agency, he said.

Bjorklund isn't confident that the government will be able to speed up hiring and is skeptical about federal HR's ability to improve its HR analytics.

"Generating lots of data doesn't help you to manage any better unless you establish purposeful key performance indicators and know how to employ the data to objectively measure progress," he said.

Private firms are moving to cloud-based HR systems. They are rejecting customizations and replacing them with vendor and industry best practices. But in some ways, the government is thinking far ahead on federal HR reforms.

For example, the U.S. is examining use of blockchain technology in supply chain, financial management and federal personnel workforce records.

But Pon said efforts so far to improve federal HR for the government's 2.1 million employees have been piecemeal. The Trump administration, which in its 2019 budget to Congress said modernizing legacy systems used by HR would be a key goal in its IT budget, is pushing for change.

The Trump administration's goal, Pon said, is to change the way federal HR recruits and manages people. "We'd like to do a lot of different changes, not at the piecemeal level but as a whole."

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