The Human Capital Officer & Quality of Life for Federal Workers

“Humans are not capital or resources”
–Angela Bailey

Angela Bailey is a retired human capital officer who worked for the Department of Homeland Security. She returned to a hearing in the United States Senate recently, marking the occasion of the 20th anniversary of when Congress first created the role of Chief Human Capital Officer (CHCO). Bailey’s remarks were a welcome reminder that even if companies and government agencies often use terminology that defines their employees as assets, those employees are–above all–human beings.

The creation of the CHCO role was aimed at making the workplace in federal agencies a little more closely aligned with the reality that each worker brings their humanity to the job. The CHCO was tasked with looking at the mission and goals of an agency or department and then developing strategies for bringing the workforce along in a way that met both those goals and employee needs.

The hope was–and remains–that a conscientious CHCO could create benchmarks of performance, while still allowing human growth to flourish. It can be tempting for the head of any business or governmental organization to see operational performance and human development as separate goals. Bailey’s remarks clarified that they are ultimately aligned.

“As I have said many times, what goes on at home, comes to work and what goes on at work, goes home”, she went on to say. The need to consider the totality of the person–their goals and quality of life continue to be essential to agency or departmental performance.

It’s therefore helpful to consider Bailey’s comments in light of a new challenge the federal workforce faces–following up on President Biden’s call at the State of the Union address to return to in-person work.

The Remote Work Challenge

The State of the Union speech summoned federal employees to be an example for private sector companies with a return to the office. Yet there are also letters where the president has referenced a desire “to build on innovations and technologies that we put to work serving the American people throughout the pandemic”. It’s far from unreasonable to think that remote work is one of those innovations. Particularly in light of the fact that a whopping 85 percent of federal employees reported higher quality of life when they are able to work from home. 

Did the need to work from home hurt agency production though? That’s the current debate going on. Two different pieces of legislation (HR-6703 in the House and S-3672 in the Senate) have been introduced to require federal agencies to carry out a return to in-person work within thirty days. Both the merits of the legislation, and whether their edicts would run afoul of collective bargaining agreements with federal employee unions are the subject of further debate.

To this point only the Social Security Administration and the Department of Agriculture have actually announced plans to recall remote workers.

Discussion over remote work and its impact on productivity is just one area where the quality of life for federal employees can be impacted. Another recent study indicated that the stability and goals of agency leadership has an impact.

The Question of Leadership

The federal government is unlike any private sector firm in that a portion of its leadership are political appointees that change whenever White House occupancy changes. The study reported that federal employees are more likely to report better engagement with their superiors when that superior is part of the permanent civilian workforce, rather than a political appointee of the president and subject to confirmation in the U.S. Senate.

The difference in employee experience was not dramatic, but the study’s authors reported that it was big enough to be statistically significant. Perhaps it’s also not surprising. Political appointees may have different goals than the employees they supervise, and the very nature of a political appointment works against long-term strategic planning. An appointee is unlikely to want to invest time and resources into a project with a twenty-year vision when that project might be undone by their successor.

It’s not an easy question to answer. Voters rightfully want two things–they want agencies subject to the political leadership they have chosen. They also want agencies to function well. Sometimes those goals can conflict. It will be the job of our elected officials to figure out how to balance everything out. We hope that in their deliberations the words of Angela Bailey are taken to heart–that the employees who will implement the plans of elected officials are human beings in their own right. Treating them as such can only benefit everyone.

At John P. Mahoney, Esq., Attorney at Law, we know that real people can have real legal problems they need help with. Our talented team of lawyers is devoted specifically to issues that impact the federal workforce. We understand the law in these areas, and we empathize with what our clients want. Don’t hesitate to call us at (202) 350-3881 or contact us online when you need help.