Seven years after the introduction of the Public Service Modernization Act, frustration with human resources management in the federal government remains high.

Progress on modernizing and making useful the human resources function in the federal government will depend upon resolving the lack of consensus on whether HR should be strategic or practical, the lack of clarity as to the roles of management and of HR in human resource management, and the need for appropriate incentives to get the right people into HR executive positions.

What is the value-added?
When the public service modernization legislation was making its way through Parliament, it was commonly heard that HR needed to be more strategic and that the legislation would enable this. In the seven years since passage of this legislation this has not occurred. As one deputy minister succinctly (and recently) put it, what he wants from the HR branch is accurate data for decision-making, quick and correct transactional service and some ability to predict future human resources issues (for example, if a large number of retirements can be expected in a particular area several years out).

Data for others to take decisions, and then solid implementation of those decisions, is what is wanted, not strategic advice on what decisions should be taken.

This disconnect between what deputies really want from their HR branches and what heads and staff of HR think is wanted from them has led to much misdirected effort. If, for example, accurate data is what is wanted, then surely with some modicum of effort this can be achieved. That it is still an issue suggests that effort is not being placed on fixing it. So what is it that HR is doing?

Clarity over roles
Human resources management should be the responsibility of every manager in the public service. Indeed, performance pay for executives in many departments takes into account how well the executive manages his or her employees.

That being said, the majority of executives still do not accept this role. As a result, policies like the Values and Ethics Policy are too often viewed as human resources policies and not as policies that are as core to the operations of government as any other work policy.

Unfortunately, too little training has gone into making policy and program officers successful managers of people, as opposed to of issues. And too few of them see any reward to spending their own time on becoming effective in managing people. Consequently, much of the people management functions they should be doing they either leave to HR or do them poorly. This means that HR is often called in to fix problems that should never have arisen in the first place.

Ensuring that branch heads are responsible for the design and implementation of human resources planning for their branch, just as they are for the business plan, would go a long way to clarifying the roles of line managers and HR with respect to ongoing people management. This would also let HR staff focus on what deputies want from them.

Most senior executives would agree that the old adage, you get what you pay for, holds in most government jobs as it does in much of life. Few ambitious senior officers or executives would see a job in HR as helpful to their careers. There are three reasons why the best and the brightest are not attracted into human resources: first, there are a small number of executive positions in HR compared to other branches; second, the head of HR is often at a director-general level and not an assistant deputy minister level; and third, there is a general view that HR is not part of the core business of a department.

How human resources and positions in HR are viewed in a department can be strongly influenced by the deputy’s behaviours and actions. How he or she interacts with their head of HR will be a large factor in whether the HR function in the future begins to contribute more deeply to the department and the deputy’s priorities.

The reality, what senior executives want from HR branch, is out of synch with the myth, what is said to be wanted from a modernized HR function. Little wonder that the frustration with HR and its activities remains undiminished notwithstanding the Public Service Modernization Act.