As his administration settles into the executive branch, President Obama faces the largest number of challenges of any new president in recent memory. Building a strong, skills-based federal workforce is key to addressing these challenges in the years ahead, and to do so, government agencies need to embrace strategic human capital planning (SHCP).

How can government executives best develop and implement strategic human capital (HC) initiatives to directly support their agencys mission-oriented strategic goals? How does an agency engage senior leadership in the SHCP process and execute effective plans to address HC needs throughout the HC planning life cycle?

This article examines how Vickers Meadows, former chief administrative officer at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), successfully managed the SHCP process and changed her agency. She did so by creating a council of senior agency leaders and human resources (HR) practitioners, which first forged consensus on the agencys emerging HC priorities and then drove critical process changes in recruitment, retention, training, performance management, and succession planning. Meadows transformed the agencys Office of Human Resources (OHR) and linked the agencys SHCP efforts to accomplishment of USPTOs strategic plan.

Issues and Answers

USPTO oversees the issuing of patents and registration of trademarks. Its overarching goal is to encourage technological innovation, investment in new technologies, protection of U.S. intellectual property rights, and dissemination of new technologies worldwide. USPTO employs one of the most professional, highly educated workforces in the federal government, made up largely of patent examiners, engineers, trademark attorneys, and a variety of technical experts. When Meadows arrived there in May 2005, she found the agency grappling with a number of critical HC challenges:

  • The agency needed to continuously recruit and onboard enough new patent examiners to meet skyrocketing demand for review of new patent and trademark applications. In FY0206, the number of agency personnel overall increased 16 percent and patent examiners alone increased 36 percent.
  • The agencys hiring, recruiting, and training processes were strained nearly to the breaking point. Senior leadership and managers had become concerned about the lengthy time it took to fill critical job vacancies, complexity of the recruiting process in general, and lack of good leadership development and training programs for employees once they came on board. They also believed that, in many cases, HR was not serving the needs of USPTOs program managers.
  • Because of the many technically skilled employees needed in critical areas, the agency was hiring younger workers on average (median age, 28) than the rest of the government (median age, 37) and at a higher entry-level job grade. Consequently, designing programs and initiatives to appeal to the job motivations of Generations X and Y was emerging as a critical concern for the agency, if it hoped to retain these highly skilled workers over time.
  • Employee retention was a growing problem, especially in the under-25 and over-60 age groups. Although it was hiring many new people, the agency was also losing people and losing them fast. The highest attrition rates were in the lower bands of grades 5 and 9. Employees with less than one year of service had an annual attrition rate of 17 percent, while those with fewer than five years of service had an annual attrition rate of 13 percent. To retain workers, the agency requested and received Office of Personnel Management (OPM) approval for a special pay request for patent examiners. It also enthusiastically embraced telework and other quality-of-life policies as recruitment and retention tools, but many policies werent effectively coordinated throughout the agency.
  • Highly independent business unit operations in USPTO meant that different parts of the agency often operated autonomously from one another, without knowledge of each others program activities and HC needs. This was preventing the agency from taking a coordinated approach to HC planning and from sharing HC best practices across all agency lines of business.

Meadows and other senior agency leaders agreed that the agency needed to develop a strategic HC plan to address its near- and long-term HC needs. Meadows also realized the agency needed a formal discussion forum where senior leaders and HR managers and leaders could collaborate on current HC issues and longterm HC requirements.

Meadows worked in her first months on the job to build support for creation of a human capital council (HCC) to help USPTO address issues throughout the HC planning cycleencompassing hiring and recruitment as well as onboarding, training, workforce planning, leadership development, and succession planning. Shed had tremendous success setting up a similar council as chief HC officer at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), where her efforts spurred development of a strategic HC plan to support HUDs strategic plan. She knew that a similar council could reap big benefits for USPTO by serving as a forum for productive discussion and problem solving and as an engine for fundamental HC process transformation (see box).

USPTO HCC

Established in fall 2005, the USPTO HCC comprised senior career leaders (principal or deputy directors) from each of the agencys program offices, HR subject matter experts, and senior HR leadership. It was soon given an immediate task: analyze the current state of the USPTO workforce and make recommendations regarding the agencys future talent requirements. These findings and recommendations would then be rolled up into a strategic HC plan for the agency.

The initial council meetings were the first time senior leaders and HR specialists had assembled to comprehensively address agency-wide HC needs. Meadows recalls, People at USPTO had never before had a forum in which to discuss HC issues and concerns, and at the beginning we had to allow people the time to vent their frustrations and articulate their needs. They soon got down to work, moving from laying blame to addressing the problems at hand and rolling up their sleeves to tackle them, she notes.

The HCC (under USPTO Management Council direction) applied a structured, iterative decision-making process to develop a strategic HC plan (Figure 1). In Phase I, the HCC thoroughly assessed current and future HC needs as a context for strategic decision making. It defined clear strategic goals and objectives that represented the consensus of senior decision makers, including those on the HCC. In Phase II, the councils work focused on quickly implementing these commitments across all USPTO business units and using an effective accountability system and communication plan to support these efforts.

To support the SHCP process, the agency carefully analyzed its workforce, examining its makeup and looking at factors such as age, job tenure, grade, gender, ethnicity, retirement eligibility, and attrition. Trends were then projected into the future to determine future HC issues, needs, and opportunities.

Vision

With findings from the workforce analysis, and using the PMA and the Human Capital Assessment and Accountability Framework (HCAAF) as guidelines for discussion, the HCC began crafting an HC vision for USPTO. Through discussion and comment from different agency stakeholders, the HCC created a vision statement that called for USPTO to become an employer of choice with a culture of high performance by 2010. To realize this objective, the agency would focus on achieving specific HC goals in four key areas:

  1. Talent management . Closing agency competency gaps in mission-critical occupations to better meet current and future needs.
  2. Results-oriented performance culture . Implementing a performance management and reward system that would effectively differentiate between high and low performers and link individual, team, and organizational goals.
  3. Leadership and knowledge management . Helping leaders and managers better manage people, maintain leadership continuity, sustain a learning environment, and share critical knowledge.
  4. Transforming the OHR . Making it into a strategic business partner to serve the needs of the agencys various business units.

Accountability and Governance

The design of USPTOs SHCP process called for a three-track approach to implementation. First, the agency had to focus on enterprise wide HC needs and initiatives. Second, it had to develop individual business unit implementation plans that aligned with USPTO HC goals and objectives and served specific business unit needs. Third, it had to transform its OHR to effectively support the rollout of new HC programs and processes.

The HCC assigned Meadows as champion for the three enterprise-wide strategic goals related to talent management, a results-oriented performance culture, and leadership and knowledge management. Individual HCC members took ownership for developing and implementing their respective business unit HC plans. Meanwhile, the council appointed USPTOs director of human capital management to serve as champion for the OHR transformation goal. Meadows and the director then appointed team leaders to drive formulation and implementation of the objectives associated with each goal.

Under Meadowss leadership, the HCC not only championed development of the SHCP, it also became the accountable, governing body to ensure its implementation and ongoing improvement. HCC members regularly briefed their superiors, while Meadows served as HCC liaison to the Management Council, updating it on SHCP status and seeking approvals and strategic guidance when required. This arrangement ensured direct and active accountability for implementing HC initiatives and kept the HC plan on the radar of the Management Council, which maintained alignment and generated strong agency-wide executive- level support.

Clarifying Issues and Needs

Meadows says the HCC played a critical role in helping USPTO identify and address its HC issues and needs organization-wide. The HCCs weekly meetings provided a regular venue in which senior agency leaders and HR professionals from across the agency could work together to solve common problems, and address issues as they arose, she says.

To this end, the HCC met regularly with federal HC subject matter experts, who educated council members on various federal HC topics. It also established subcommittees that drilled down to specific HC issues tagged as needing action and helped develop solutions to problems. The councils training subcommittee, for example, looked at ways to introduce more robust leadership and management training into the agencya need clearly identified in the workforce analysis. From those discussions came a comprehensive training plan for current and emerging agency leaders.

Policy and Program Forum

The HCC also served as a forum for developing umbrella HC policies for the entire agency. When Meadows arrived at USPTO, for example, the agency had twelve to fourteen separate telework programs in place across various business units, all of which operated independently. The council developed an umbrella telework policy for all USPTO business units, thus bringing the policy greater rigor, consistency, and discipline and setting standards for implementing programs in individual business units. Council discussions ensured that USPTO developed agency-wide HC policies and practices with sufficient consistency, but also enough flexibility to meet individual business units needs.

Service-Level Agreements

Another task the HCC tackled was establishing service-level agreements (SLAs) and associated metrics to improve certain key HC processes such as agency hiring. Every service organization within USPTO developed these SLAsnot just patents and trademarks but also the IT department, the general counsels office, and the CFO office, Meadows says. Doing so helped departments and business units bring greater consistency, transparency, and accountability to their processes.

Meadows says the idea of developing SLAs grew out of intense Management Council discussions about broken HR processes in USPTO and how best to fix them. In some cases, as the HCC talked about problems with our processes, we found that we didnt need to fix an entire process. Sometimes wed find that only a piece of a process was broken or needed to be redesigned. For that reason, SLAs often set performance standards for discrete elements of processes within specific business units.

SLAs proved particularly important in transforming OHR operations, enabling it to improve its performance of basic HR functions and enhance its delivery of strategic consulting services to USPTO business units. Our aim in standing up the HC plan was to make HR a trusted strategic partner to agency leaders, Meadows says. To do this, the council discussed and developed SLAs to help the OHR reduce cycle times for hiring and recruiting, improve customer service to business units, and improve delivery of targeted hiring, consulting, and problem-solving services to business units.

Establishing SLAs across support business units increased the agency managers satisfaction and gave them a transparent way to regularly evaluate the performance of processes. It also helped USPTO better comply with OPM hiring and recruiting procedures and those of the Government Accountability Office. Before we established the council and SLAs, people across the agency often didnt know the details of specific policies, didnt know where to go to get information about them, or how to apply them to hiring and recruiting, says Meadows.

Learning Community

Over time, Meadows says the council became not just a forum for addressing important HC issues, but also a learning community in which business leaders and HR practitioners from across the agency worked together, reached consensus, and developed HC best practices to apply throughout USPTO. Council members continued to share and troubleshoot problems and started to trade ideas and share success stories and best practices with one another, she says. It was natural for this to happen because agency managers and HR staff were sitting down at the same table, week after week, to find solutions to their common problems.

Work Results

Meadows says establishing the HCC at USPTO had many tangible benefits for the agency:

  • Its work helped spur a major reengineering of the agencys hiring, recruiting, and onboarding processes. Today, USPTO is hiring patent examiners in record numbers, and making better hiring decisions across the organization, Meadows says. The agency also has put a robust recruitment process in place and is making a particular effort to reach and recruit more women and minorities by recruiting at historically black colleges and universities and by targeting job candidates through organizations such as the National Society for Black Engineers, Society for Women Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and American Indian Science and Engineering Society.
  • After nearly a year of work, the council completed a detailed HC plan for the agency. Close collaboration and discussion of HC needs among council members helped ensure that USPTO put HC strategies, processes, and policies in place to support the agencys strategic plan. This subsequently helped bolster the agencys overall operations and effectiveness. These results can be traced directly back to the work of the HC council in redesigning and improving key HC processes, and driving tighter alignment and engagement of employees with business unit goals, says Meadows.
  • Improving core HC processes helped strengthen USPTOs capabilities in the areas of leadership development and succession planning. In May 2007, Meadows reported to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that, as a result of HC process improvements, the agency began to see more patent and trademark professionals interested in advancement to the Senior Executive Service ranks, taking advantage of managerial, supervisory, leadership, and executive management training and development assignments offered or funded by USPTO. The agency also began to make greater use of managerial training programs offered through OPM and the Federal Executive Institute, and today continues to work to develop internal programs to grow its next generation of leaders. Model for Others Meadows says her experience in establishing HCCs at HUD and USPTO has taught her several things:
  • Creating such councils can help accelerate the introduction of HC best practices in any federal agency. Senior managers and HR professionals work in tandem to address HC needs and create a forum where they can continually address HC issues.
  • Councils provide transparency of process and a way to demonstrate to an organizations employees that it takes HC issues seriously. In agencies today, its critical that employees see that senior management is committed to resolving issues that relate to workforce productivity, employee empowerment, professional development and quality of life, she says. This helps elevate employee morale and align employees with the organizational mission.
  • HCCs provide a mechanism for dealing with the full array of HC challenges agencies face today. Dealing with todays workforce issues requires a strategic and integrated approach to HC planning, and an HC council provides the perfect forum for discussion of problems and the creation of a strategic framework to deal with HC concerns, says Meadows.
  • HCCs provide a context for greater collaboration between agency managers and federal HR professionals. When you get senior decision makers in a room together you break down silos and get everybody on the same page to address and deal with problems, Meadows says. Federal HR practitioners learn firsthand the needs and frustrations of managers, especially when it comes to filling critical vacancies and developing employees. At the same time, managers learn more about federal hiring parameters and other issues with which HR people must deal daily. The communication and cooperation becomes a two-way street, with both sides developing a better understanding of the needs, agendas and operating constraints of the other.

Meadows believes that, in the years ahead, more agencies will benefit from developing HCCs of their own, which can effectively address their HC issues across all lines of business and throughout the HC planning life cycle. Says she: Human capital councils are the natural organizational forum in which senior managers can work closely and collaboratively with federal HC and HR specialists to address an agencys HC concerns in a strategic and integrated way.