Workforce Planning – An Oxymoron?

“We are all interested in the future,” the “futurist” Criswell once said, “because that’s where we will spend the rest of our lives.”

I spent the last week or so at work planning for the future. All good businesses are supposed to look ahead and anticipate the future. The same is true with the federal government. In my little corner of the civil service my boss handed me the responsibility of putting together a workforce plan for the next five years.

Well this was certainly something new. I wondered if this was just another paper exercise or something that we might actually use. I was tempted just to jot down random thoughts in a Word document, call it a plan and then archive it somewhere where no one will actually see it or use it. Why? Because it seemed to me that if the Congress and the White House can’t adequately plan for the future, why should my little corner of the federal bureaucracy? My poor overworked boss, for example, has to make our federal information system comply with the Clinger-Cohen Act. Among other things the act requires that federal systems be rigorously planned and projected out for the next five years. Performance standards are set in advance and variances of just five percent can end us up on watch lists. It’s not a good thing to get on a watch list. If you are unwise enough to get on one of them you will spend your days being terminally micromanaged instead of actually getting any work done.

What’s sauce for federal agencies should be sauce for the Congress. But of course it doesn’t work that way. My agency should be able to count on its annual appropriation bill being passed and signed into law before the start of the fiscal year on October 1st. But nine times out of ten Congress has found more important things to do then get around to the pesky business of passing appropriation bills. So we linger for months in a series of congressional Continuing Resolutions that dribble out money to our agency until Congress decides what it really wants to appropriate for the fiscal year. Generally this means our plans are on hold because we don’t know what we will be allowed to spend. Eventually the appropriation bill is signed into law and money arrives in a rush. And then often chaos ensues because the actual money appropriated and the money planned rarely match up. Yet while all this is happening we are planning for the next three years. Given past experience these plans will mean little either.

So I was somewhat sanguine when I sat down and tried to create a workforce plan looking five years in the future. It was time to see if I had any psychic powers. Could I read the mind of the President and the Congress where so many had failed? It seemed best to me to plan for the most likely worst-case scenario. It was a good bet that if President Bush had to choose between tax cuts and fully funding my agency, tax cuts would win. So it seemed a safe assumption that we’d have the same amount of money, or less than we have currently. Water resources are pretty boring compared with homeland security and defense so we won’t be on the top of anyone’s list. Plus the Washington Post said President Bush was going to propose a flat budget. Figuring our appropriation would at best stay steady but cost of living raises would have to be absorbed, a three percent reduction in man-hours over the next three fiscal years seemed prudent. Why three years? Because after the next three years Bush would be out of office. For years four and five I assumed the next president would at least fully index us for inflation, so I kept the manpower steady.

Three percent of man-hours though are not trivial. It means someone won’t be doing work for us. It also means our water information system will be more in maintenance than development mode. A lot of our work is done by federal employees whose time we buy part time from other districts inside our agency. Most likely these people, and not the full time staff, would take the brunt of the reductions. Some of them might be out of a job. Hopefully their districts would scramble and find other work for them.

But with attrition rates of about five percent a year, it looked possible that no one would lose their jobs. But of course workforce planning is also about making sure you have the skills you need in the future, not the skills you have now. What skills would we need in five years? It was time to summon my psychic powers again.

Coming from an agency where outsourcing was king I figured my agency would likely see a lot more outsourcing. It was hard to imagine how they could outsource many of us. After all finding information technology people who know hydrology is not a trivial task. But looking over the people we employed I could see the green eyeshade people would likely scrutinize some of our employees. For example, in theory database administrators should not be outsourced since they hold the keys to sensitive information. But in actuality they have a commoditized skill so they are fairly easy to outsource. The same is true with the people running and managing our servers. In fact in the network area the trend is to outsource not just the people but the whole network infrastructure. I could see in five years that my agency would be paying some private data service center that would guarantee bandwidth and storage space. Anyone involved in configuring and patching Solaris and Linux machines might well be unemployed or doing other stuff.

Ouch. This hurts because a lot of these people are my friends. I didn’t want them to lose their jobs. But my hunch is they would be a lot more likely to stay employed with us if they knew how to manage contracts with external service providers. In fact, with trends like storage area networks I could see the whole notion of managing physical servers going away. Want a server? Create a virtual dedicated server in a storage area network. Need more space? Tell the Oracle 10g database and it will find it, configure it and put it to use immediately. By using grid technologies we will neither know nor care where it is. It will just be a network service purchased with government money and professionally managed by external corporations optimized for this sort of work.

I finished my plan and gingerly gave it to my boss. I warned her I felt it had to be politically incorrect. I was stepping on too many toes. But she said I did an excellent job and to coordinate it with the other unit chiefs.

And so I find myself rooting against my own plan. I put it together trying to do it in the most benign way possible and still recognize the likely reality that we were going to get less and less money but be asked to do more and more. But it seems however controversial my ideas they seemed fairly well grounded in reality, at least according to my boss.

So it seems to be that all I can do is ring the alarm bell. There are icebergs out there but they are hard to see. But if we can be proactive then we can save our valuable employees a lot of pain now by not filling positions and by moving in areas we may not want to move toward, like network consolidation. But there will still be pain. Whether with or without a plan the dollars we’ll get are likely to be fewer. We can only minimize our pain while trying to be the most effective we can with the money we have.

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