office workers (Robert Adrian Hillman/


As numbers of agency HR employees declined, workloads rose, MSPB says

According to the Merit Systems Protection Board, federal agencies' human resources departments have struggled to recover since a major downsizing campaign in the 1990s.

The MSPB's Office of Policy and Evaluation published its findings in a research brief after interviewing federal HR personnel and experts and analyzing data from the Office of Personnel Management as well as the results of a questionnaire sent out to Chief Human Capital Officers.

"HR staff levels have declined as a proportion of permanent full-time employment," the MSPB report authors wrote. "Over time, agencies have hired more HR specialists and fewer HR assistants."

Some of the cause may lie at the feet of a campaign to overhaul the federal HR apparatus that began 25 years earlier.

In 1993, the federal government set up an interagency taskforce, the National Performance Review, in a bid to cut down on personnel costs, decentralize HR functions, eliminate red tape and refocus attention on providing customer service.

As a result of those findings, OPM staffing and overall HR staffing levels dropped significantly 1993 and 1998, with some agency HR workforces being cut by as much as 40%," according to the MSPB brief.

As HR staffing levels dropped, the average number of federal employees serviced by individual HR employees rose from 40.8 in 1993 to 48.2 in 2018. At the same time, plans for automation and other technologies to allow for individual HR employees to handle the larger load haven't panned out. The lack of HR assistants is felt keenly  by specialists who have rote processing work as part of their jobs.

"Many specialists said that they are now overwhelmed by lower-level tasks such as processing personnel actions and data entry," the report stated. As a result, higher-grade HR managers tended to spend more time on activities that are "not strategic, even if they are necessary to hire and pay employees."

The impact has been less pronounced at large agencies such as the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs, likely because there are fewer HR specialists there, and they are graded higher than they were in the 1990s.

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