/* */

05 May 2007

Failing HR processes in the IC

We have been greatly concerned with the issues of recruitment and retention of the kinds of minds that the intelligence community needs most in the coming years, and the development and cultivation of the next generation that will replace them in the out-years. Our concerns are motivated not only by the ever increasing demand for intelligence (and intelligence-like) services throughout government and corporate environments, but what appears to be a systematic failure of organizational structure and process to identify, interview, vet, and place qualified candidates in roles which will satisfy them now and provide longer term growth potential.

It is widely acknowledged that one of the greatest drivers behind the success of the privatization of intelligence has been that contractors offer a greater flexibility of salary, working conditions, target accounts, initial hiring, and advancement. These benefits often come at a cost of stability, as contracts come and go, but good companies – those that are not simply body shops or churn mills – usually are able to offer a broad enough spectrum of options that individual analysts and officers are not caught out in the cold in most cases. (There are a few sometimes horrifying exceptions even in the best shops, especially when these involve transfers of clearances between entities - but that is another post entirely.)

The sheer volume of billets available in recent years (hiring of new GS/GG employees, and corresponding movement of GS to contractor, and contractor to yet another contractor) has however served to mask some fundamental human resources issues that are degrading community capabilities.

We are not speaking of the quality of life issues – although these are not insignificant, especially in light of the ever-expanding geographic scope and growing density of the Washington DC metro area. And for now, forget about compensation issues, as painful as these can be for junior folk – and as misunderstood as they are by most dual-income SES’s with net worth enhanced immeasurably by the property boom. We are not even talking about the language gap, or any of the myriad thorns surrounding clearance system problems.

Simply put, we are finding more and more that many HR functions – even in the largest and best run shops – are simply inadequate to the task at hand. HR elements usually lack fundamental knowledge regarding the skills, competencies, and substantive expertise needed to successfully carry out any given assignment. They are forced to rely on buzzwords, “coolness” factors, and poorly written generic position descriptions – all of which typically devolves to the worst of all screening criteria - the simple notations of a specific clearance level coupled with a heartbeat.

While the utility of the latter approach is bluntly a requirement of inefficiencies in current approaches to positive vetting, it is also fundamentally flawed and tends to place unqualified individuals who simply have required accesses into assignments where they quickly and inevitably fail. There are endless tragic stories of individuals being asked to leave a billet within weeks of initial assignment based on mismatch of skills to need, or personality to team – and these are just the ones to which the system was capable of dealing with. All too often, these individuals stay in place, taking up space and producing nothing of value – and usually creating additional issues of morale, policy, and new workload (spent cleaning up after the poorly suited individual’s attempts to show that they are working.)

The number of bodies cycling through the system also means that specific attention is rarely paid to candidates based on their individual capabilities and contributions, but rather candidates are grouped into classes of consideration dictated by ease of transfer, diversity points, or a rough sorting of generic top level account types (regardless of actual target assignments.) In this shuffle, a lot of individuals are slipping through the cracks – and not all will stay in the community when there are many attractive private sector offers out there that involve none of the kind of existential stress that a move within the community can entail. The best and most adaptable find their own billets, and make their own futures – but this takes time and attention away from target issues and accounts where their skills are needed most by the community.

So instead, we are treated to the endless parade of position vacancy announcements flooding major metropolitan area newspapers – including ever more specific write-ups of desired abilities to access classified systems by name, by clearance types, and by target account (OPSEC concerns which are simply lost in the noise at this point, but have the potential to create serious longer term implications for the community as a whole). The HR shops at major contractors are in a constant state of churn, with paper passing across desks constantly in a nearly mind numbing flow of names and histories. And these are the better functions – with well compensated, well motivated HR professionals attempting to cope with the deluge.

Government HR fares far worse, typically dominated by low level GS employees ranked in thankless hives, driven by ever more restrictive attempts at imposing equality and diversity preferences without regard to knowledge, skills, or abilities. (And while we are great fans of true diversity – particularly in the critical areas of language skills, cultural awareness, and overseas experience – we find that current systems designed to identify and promote diversity usually fail utterly in bureaucratic fashion, producing the appearance of diversity but not its actual benefits.) This also assumes that vacant billets are even budgeted – in too many shops, active billets vanish from year to year not due to a decision to cut, but based on poor program management which fails to handle the longer term effects of poor retention.

In response, so far we have seen only a Human Capital Plan and a “Hundred Day” Plan at the policy level – the first of which is, in our opinion, largely unhelpful; and the latter as yet largely an unknown factor. On the ground, there are increasing numbers of back door attempts to create solutions – from one day career fairs designed to establish a candidate pool with immediate offers to a manageable number of new bodies, to ever shorter series vacancy announcements attempting to certify a small enough list so that the best qualified candidates have a chance of making it through the process at all before they are snapped up elsewhere.

These solutions are stopgaps which can only delay the reckoning for the systemic dysfunction which plagues the community. The community is not getting the right new blood that is so needed (despite the high hopes we hold for many of the amazing young up and coming entrants we have been encountering in ever greater numbers), and it is grossly failing to retain and re-assign the critically small pool of experienced (but not retirement age) professionals that are the backbone of most program efforts.

It’s a game of musical chairs, and the looming uncertainties of election year politics and related funding impacts means there are a lot of people anticipating that the music may stop very soon. It is going to take serious effort by serious people, using market-based approaches that take into account the true nature of today’s intelligence community, to solve the dilemma and provide for the next generation. Otherwise, the HR problem will be one of the most prominent rocks upon which intelligence community reform efforts will founder, and no amount of research papers, policy studies, or expert commissions will suffice to save it.

Labels: , , ,