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Dr. Reginald Wells interview

Friday, May 9th, 2008 - 20:00
Phrase: 
"We recognized that because of the retirement wave and the importance of maintaining our workforce, our competency, and our commitment to service, that we needed to revitalize our recruitment program and efforts."
Radio show date: 
Sat, 05/10/2008
Intro text: 
Wells discusses how SSA is assessing and planning for the pending retirement wave. He describes some of the solutions to the retirement problem that SSA is considering, including workforce transition planning, succession planning, and new recruitment...
Wells discusses how SSA is assessing and planning for the pending retirement wave. He describes some of the solutions to the retirement problem that SSA is considering, including workforce transition planning, succession planning, and new recruitment techniques. Wells also talks about SSA's training programs and the challenges facing new and long-time employees. In addition, Wells explains how the Office of Human Resources tracks and uses customer satisfaction information. Human Capital Management
Complete transcript: 

Originally Broadcast May 10, 2008

Washington, D.C.

Announcer: Welcome to The Business of Government Hour, a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. The Business of Government Hour is produced by The IBM Center for The Business of Government, which was created in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. You can find out more about The Center by visiting us on the web at businessofgovernment.org. And now The Business of Government Hour.

Mr. Morales: Good morning. I'm Albert Morales, your host and managing partner of The IBM Center for The Business of Government.

The U.S. Social Security Administration faces complex management challenges closely linked to profound changes in our country. With the baby-boom generation nearing retirement age and people living longer, the public is expecting greater program integrity as resources become constrained. The success of meeting such challenges rests on the pursuit of an effective human capital approach and workforce strategy.

With us this morning to discuss SSA's strategic efforts in this area, is Dr. Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner for Human Resources and chief human capital officer at the U.S. Social Security Administration.

Good morning, Dr. Wells.

Mr. Wells: Good morning, Al, how are you?

Mr. Morales: Great, thank you.

Also joining us in our conversation is, Solly Thomas, associate partner in IBM's human capital practice.

Good morning, Solly.

Mr. Thomas: Good morning Al, and good morning Reggie, good to see you again.

Mr. Wells: Solly, it's always good being with you.

Mr. Morales: Dr. Wells, as you know, we always like to ground our listeners with some context around the broader organizations. So could you start off by providing us a general overview of the Social Security Administration, perhaps including its history and its current mission?

Mr. Wells: I'd be happy to, Al.

Social Security Administration or the Social Security Act was signed into reality by President Roosevelt, 1935. It has grown exponentially over that time. And as you see today, it basically provides three basic programs, or has three fundamental constituencies.

People who are retirees and are receiving benefits, social security benefits as a result of what they've paid into the system, that funding resides in a trust fund, and then you have individuals who are survivors of workers who have paid into the system. And you have people with disabilities, who for whatever reason have a catastrophic illness or a disability that prevents them from working full-time in many instances.

We currently have about 50 million beneficiaries today of the social security program, about 7 million SSI beneficiaries. And 164 million individuals pay in to that system in order for the system to be as successful as it is today. We issue something in excess of 17 million cards, which is how most people know of us, one way or another. We have a 800 number telephone system that actually deals with about 57 million calls each year. So we have a pretty phenomenal case load.

We have had some fairly highly publicized challenges in terms of our disability backlogs and things of that nature. And as the baby-boomer generation enters into retirement years or enter into disability-prone years, you tend to have more people coming to us for those services, so it is a particular challenge for us right now, having sort of that confluence of events.

Mr. Morales: Well, it's certainly a very large organization with a very critical mission here in our country. So you began to give us a sense of some of the scale of the operations. Perhaps you could elaborate a bit more on that; how the organization is organized, perhaps the size of the budget, number of full-time employees and contractors, and perhaps a sense of the geographic footprint across the country.

Mr. Wells: Well, we are a pretty large organization. We have 60,000 employees. We basically pay out a $650 billion in benefits. And that is roughly 60 million people annually. So, in terms of the impact on the U.S. economy, and obviously the subsistence of our nation's population, it's pretty significant. We have about 1,400 hearing and hearing officers and field officers, which are very direct, service oriented. So a very significant difference between the Social Security Administration and a lot of other federal agencies is that we really do have a substantial amount of public contact. In terms of that foot print we are geographically all over the country.

Very often, I think community see us as, kind of, the face of the government, because probably 96 to 98 percent of the American public has to have some dealing with us at some point in time. Whether it's getting that card or coming to us for benefits. We have 36 teleservice centers, and they deal with those phone calls I referred to earlier, the 800 number. We have a program service centers processing those benefits.

And we have an administrative budget of about $9.7 billion, which is actually pretty efficient when you consider the amount of -- the size of our budgets and the amount of benefits we pay up.

Mr. Thomas: Reggie, now that you have provided our listeners with the sense of the larger organization, let's talk a little bit about your specific program. What are your responsibilities and duties as the deputy commissioner for Human Resources and the agency's chief human capital officer? Could you also tell us about the programs under your purview, how your office is structured, the size of the staff, perhaps the budget as well?

Mr. Wells: It's been quite a challenge. I have been with the agency about 6 years now, and it has been really a pleasure managing the office of Human Resources as deputy commissioner for Human Resources.

But in that role I have the responsibility for -- an oversight for the Office of Personnel, the Office of Training, our Labor Management and Employee Relations area and Civil Rights and Equal Opportunity. I also have a couple of smaller components for managing, and they are really attached directly to my office for managing our executive services function, and also our human capital planning, which is really critical to workforce planning and the work that we do in concert with the Office of Personnel Management.

And it's really in that chief human capital officer role that I get to relate most directly to the Office of Personnel Management and to the other federal agencies in government. So, I tend to think of my role as deputy commissioner of human resources as sort of the inside work that I do, as a strategic partner to all the other deputy commissioners and components of SSA, supporting the workforce, making sure that we are administering those human resources programs.

And then as chief human capital officer, pursuant to the Chief Human Capital Officer's Act of 2002, I get to relate to other federal agencies, collaborate with them, serve on sub-committees, doing work that benefits all federal agencies across the board.

Mr. Thomas: And Reggie, following up on the roles and responsibilities that you have as the agency's chief human capital officer, can you talk a little bit about the most significant challenges that you face in your position, and how you have addressed these challenges?

Mr. Wells: I am delighted to do that too, because this is an opportunity for me to share with you and the listeners some to the things that we are grappling with. And obviously, since we do this as public service, it's an opportunity to inform them of some of the things that we need support on.

One of the biggest challenges and it's not just particular to social security, of course, and really not even particular to the public sector, is the retirement wave. There was a recognition that we had to do more in the area of human resources to support the workforce, to make sure the agency was postured properly.

One of the advantages of being SSA is that we have actuaries; that's one of our mission critical positions. They started doing some workforce analysis 15 years ago. It gave us a very clear indication of what we were going to be experiencing in this period as we projected the fact that a significant number of our people were going to be eligible for retirement. It was obvious to us that we were going to see a tremendous brain drain.

So that's one of our major challenges and of course with that comes the challenge of recruitment and finding the right talent to replace the talent we lose. I think because the largest number of people who are going the quickest are leadership folks, you have to make sure that you are grooming the next generation and do it the right way. And the Office of Personnel Management has required all agencies, which is important, given this retirement wave we are dealing with, to pay more attention to succession management and to have a succession management plan.

And I would say the most significant challenge that we are facing is really the resource challenge. Having enough budget capability to replenish our workforce, meet the numbers that we need to, we have some significant programmatic challenges as a result of the retirement of the baby boomers, but it is compounded by our own folks retiring, and in some cases not being able to replenish them at the same rate that we lose them.

So I think our Commissioner has really done a phenomenal job of informing the White House and informing Congress of that challenge. So we are feeling a bit rejuvenated in the sense that we can replace at least the people we are losing on a one-to-one basis.

Mr. Morales: That's great. It certainly is a challenge across the government and the private sector.

Now, Dr. Wells, I recall that prior to your joining SSA you were in the local D.C. government. Could you describe your career path for our listeners? How did you get started and what brought you to SSA?

Mr. Wells: I started out my public sector career in Essex County, New Jersey, as a matter of fact, and moved right into supervision and the social services and health area. And I managed nursing homes, well, the county nursing home and I was very much involved in the running of the county's psych hospital at that time.

I left there after 4 years and came to Washington, D.C. to work in the Department of Human Services as it was called back then. That was mental health, public health, and social services programs like -- at that time it was called aid to families with dependant children, or the welfare program, child welfare, juvenile justice, homelessness program, and the disability programs, and a number of the child care programs in the city.

And I started out doing primarily institutional management, but moved into community work because the district was de-institutionalizing, amidst system for people with developmental disabilities, mental retardation and developmental disabilities.

And after 10 years of working in those areas and then the commission on social services as the deputy commissioner, I had the opportunity to move to health and human services at the federal level as the deputy commissioner for developmental disabilities and I did that for about 7 and a half before going to social security.

And actually I went to social security originally to work in the disability reform effort that was going on there, and I was tapped by the commissioner to head up human resources and supporting the workforce of social security given its mission and function has been really phenomenal.

Mr. Morales: That's a fantastic story, and you've clearly seen the 360 degrees of this business. So as you reflect back on those experiences, how do you think that they have prepared you for your current leadership role and shaped your current management style?

Mr. Wells: One of the things that was a constant through that experience was the importance of people and the equation. You really can't accomplish, probably any meaningful work, but certainly not public service without having an extraordinary group of public servants that are sort of committed to making a difference in the lives of people. And I found that to be true in all of the jobs I've had that there were extraordinary people who were committed, making a difference in people's lives and making their lives better. And as a result of that, it just impressed upon me how important the human equation is.

I think the importance of showing those people appreciation, because I think it's important of those of us who are in leadership positions in government to make sure we take the time to remind folks of just how important the work is that they do, and, how much we appreciate them doing it well. I'd say that it's been very, very clear to me that resources, at the end of the day, drive a lot of what you are able to do.

We were fortunate enough to be evaluated by the partnership of public service as being seventh from among the best places to work in federal government, and it's kind of special to get that kind of recognition from time to time. It's been very clear to me that providing employees with the tools they need to do the job we have asked them to do is extremely important and something that we should always be working towards.

Mr. Morales: That's fantastic.

What is SSA's human resource strategy? We will ask Dr. Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner for human resources and chief human capital officer at the U.S. Social Security Administration to share with us, when the conversation about management continues on the Business of Government Hour

(Intermission)

 

Mr. Morales: Welcome back to the Business of Government Hour. I'm your host Albert Morales, and this morning's conversation is with Dr. Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner for Human Resources and chief human capital officer at the U.S. Social Security Administration. Also joining us in our conversation from IBM is Solly Thomas.

Dr. Wells, could you tell us about SSA's comprehensive human capital strategy and your efforts to develop and implement an updated strategic human capital plan, and if I may, how does this human capital strategy align and support SSA's broader mission and goals?

Mr. Wells: Al, all federal agencies at this stage of the game are required to have a Strategic Human Capital Plan. It basically sets the strategic direction for your human capital efforts at a given agency. As I alluded to earlier, the chief human capital officer is expected to be a chief advisor to agency head and the executive team in any given federal agency, and you have to have certain information at your fingertips and certain alignment between the agency's strategic plan and the human capital plan, or the strategies from a human perspective that you have to have in place in order to carry-out that agency plan.

So it's very important that there be alignment. We put a lot of effort into making sure that the agency's strategic plan and our human capital plan are in fact in alignment or layout the human capital strategies that are necessary to fill that plan, and OPM and OMB do monitor whether or not we are achieving that and accomplishing that. And back at the Social Security we're going through or actually come through a fairly rigorous process of coming up with a new agency's strategic plan. And we have been working on our human capital plan, sort of on a parallel track, to make sure that it allows us to fulfill that agency's strategic plan.

The Office of Personnel Management has human capital assessment and accountability framework. And we make sure that our human capital plan fulfills all of those requirements. The human capital plan is a roadmap, I meant, it basically lays out where we have to get to with regard to certain competencies in the agency, which can shift over time. Those of us who were baby boomers we had to learn computer skills on the job, and some of us are still technologically challenged, but striving to be as good as we can be. Responding to e-mails and trying to conduct business, and those kinds of tools are very important to our ability to be efficient today, so we are expecting that of our workers.

We lay out in our human capital plan a recruitment strategies, the ability to identify, recruit, and then ultimately retain talent is really critical, so this human capital plan lays out, how we intend to go about that. Training is a really -- and especially entry-level training is extremely critical. So our claims reps and service reps who do that public contact work, we have to teach them the intricacies of the Social Security Act, and the various programs that are laid out in it.

So there is a tremendous importance for our human capital plan, laying out what our learning management strategies are going to be as an agency. And then there's the whole issue of that workload forecasting. We have to -- there are priorities that are set by the Commissioner, by Congress, by the White House, and we reflect those in our agency's strategic plan, and therefore, the human capital plan has to lay out the mechanisms by which we will make sure we are able to address that workload.

Mr. Morales: That's great. So since 2004, you've obviously been performing very well against the President's Management Agenda. So I'm curious, what lessons have you learned from this experience?

Mr. Wells: We actually were recognized for making the most dramatic improvement of any federal agency, and that we went from 21st to 7th, and that was a pretty dramatic --

Mr. Morales: It's a pretty big leap.

Mr. Wells: -- pretty dramatic leap and I think the things we learned from it were that technology was extremely important to that. We put a lot of emphasis on communication, because I think the record shows that communication between management, leadership and the workforce, when it is not fluid, when it is not complete, it can result in some disjoint effort, and working at cross purposes. And I think that's one of the things that we concluded that it was important to have a performance management system, for example, that laid out the importance of each individual responsibility in relation to the agency's strategic direction, or strategic plan, having a clear sense of what's expected, and having very clear feedback on whether you are meeting and fulfilling those obligations or not. We felt it paid some major dividends in terms of how employees felt about the workplace.

Training was extremely critical, we felt, and preparing people for the challenges in the workplace, and -- historically I think we've done an outstanding job with entry-level training, or training -- the technical training, so we've put a lot of emphasis into that. And those are some of the things that I think we've learned as a result.

Mr. Thomas: Reggie let's talk a little bit about the role of the HR workforce. As, you know, the federal human resources community is changing from a transaction-based environment to a more strategic and consultative role. Could you tell us more about your efforts to transform the human resources function within SSA and on a related matter, how is your agency looking to build the skills and capabilities of its HR professionals, so that they can become more strategic in areas such as workforce planning and recruiting.

Mr. Wells: Well, that's a very insightful question, Solly, and for much of my career, I functioned as a line manager with the usual dependency on the HR component to support me to make sure that they processed, you know, actions that are requested to get talented people in, and that transactional business is extremely important, and you can go about it in a variety of ways. Some organizations contract out a lot of that work, and that's sort of a trend today, to sort of move in the direction of outsourcing that work, or contracting it out to either another public agency or a private organization. And the emphasis is on sort of strategic direction, and how we plan and execute those human resources strategies is a really important thing. The President's Management Agenda really did allow us to recommit ourselves to that, and to emphasize that human resources is a strategic partner in the workplace, so that just as a practical example, if you are going to be initiating a major programmatic initiative, it is better to have human resources at the table, at the planning stage, so that you can anticipate any blips or bumps in the road toward that implementation.

In human resources we've really reoriented ourselves to be much more strategic in the way we go about thinking about things and doing things, and that has allowed, I think, organizations to be much more efficient in the way that they operate, because they aren't wasting resources by having false starts or starting down a path that is ill-advised from a labor perspective or a training perspective, or generally a human resources perspective.

So I think being a strategic partner is extremely important in an era where you don't have resources to waste, and I think that's been extremely important for Social Security, and I've gotten similar feedback from other federal agencies, since we have had this chief human capital officer counsel in place, and we share promising practices and best practices with one another. I think it has allowed all ships to rise, I think we are all able to move in a much more efficient and effective way.

Mr. Thomas: Thanks Reggie. Now, earlier in our conversation, you had talked about the SSA's performance management efforts and maybe we can talk a little bit more about that. Could you tell our listeners what you've done to put in place an agency-wide performance management system, obviously, ideally one that links employee-performance expectations with organizational goals and objectives, and I understand that you have also put in place, the performance assessment and communications system, perhaps we could have a better understanding of how that works and how that supports your performance management program?

Mr. Wells: When I took over as deputy commissioner of human resources, the first thing the commissioner asked me to do was to revamp performance management in the agency especially with our senior executives. Social security, when I arrived, was under a pass/fail system. We basically had our executives all the way down, essentially evaluated in a pass/fail model, you either passed or you failed. And in that kind of a model, obviously, there's really not much room or there really is no room to make distinctions, I mean, if everyone passes, there's no distinction about whether someone passed in a phenomenal way or someone just barely passed. And so I immediately moved to a multi-level system for senior executives, the year following we converted for our Grade 15 managers.

By that time the President's Management Agenda was full-blown and the guidance coming out of OPM was that pass/fail systems were frowned upon, they were not rigorous enough or robust enough to really distinguish performance. And so everyone was being encouraged to move away from it.

Well, we have a pretty healthy labor environment at Social Security; we have a number of unions that we work with as cooperatively as we can, and we felt that it was important to negotiate, enter into discussions around the sort of implementation of additional performance management changes and so we had a committee pulled together that really evaluated a number of performance management models, philosophies, and as a result of a -- really about a year, year-and-a-half process, came up with what you refer to, Solly, as PACS, the performance assessment and communication system.

The employee knows upfront how they will be evaluated against the expectations and then at the end of that year they sit down and sort of take stock of where they are. And we implemented it in October of 2006, and we've come through a full cycle now, and we're into the second year of it.

And feedback has been pretty good, there are always doubting Thomases, people who feel when you make a change, you know, it's going to be the end of the world. And I think it was done with extreme care, it was done very respectfully and working with labor around it, and I think in the final analysis, employees are giving us feedback that they do have a clearer sense of what is expected of them, And we've done some things with technology to make it a little simpler on how you actually record all of this. And so it really has been a very successful venture on our part.

Mr. Morales: Reginald earlier you've talked about the war on talent and the criticality of recruitment in support of your succession planning. Could you tell us what changes you are making to the recruitment process at SSA and are you able to use flexible compensation strategies to attract, or maintain employees and save the mission critical areas.

Mr. Wells: We use all of the flexibilities that are provided. We don't use them all at once, and we don't use them all the time, we use them when we feel we have a particular recruitment challenge, because of course, most of the flexibilities require resources and we try to use those as conservatively as we have to to make them go further. Our recruitment approach was actually revamped a number of years ago, I guess around 2001, and 2002, we actually overhauled in a major way, our recruitment strategy and we currently operate with a sort of a 10-point or 10-element approach. It involves an integrated marketing strategy and branding. For example, make a difference in people's lives, and your own to, sort of emphasize the mission-driven aspects of our agency.

And what I would suggest is that, at least for us, and this is a blessing, that our mission resonates very, very well with people, both young people and people who are looking to maybe have a second career, or to interrupt the career they are in to get into a line of work that they feel, you know, is more consistent with their value system or their goals in life, in terms of, you know, government does offer a pretty stable pension situation and other benefits that some people are gravitating to us for. So you know our mission is a very strong one, and we really, really play that up as much as we can, but we you know do on-campus recruitment, we have the benefit of a national blue -- and actually somewhat international blueprint.

So we are able to recruit in all kinds of communities, and which goes a long way toward allowing us to be a very diverse organization and to have a workforce that reflects the people we serve, so that's a very strong thing and something we continue to look forward in our recruitment activities.

We do a lot of online internet strategizing and we, as I said, use maximum flexibility. So I think we are doing all of that, I think in some strategically importance ways.

Mr. Morales: That's great, that's fantastic. What about SSA's knowledge management efforts. We will ask Dr. Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner for Human Resources and chief human capital officer at the U.S. Social Security Administration to share with us when the conversion about management continues on the Business of Government Hour.

(Intermission)

 

Mr. Morales: Welcome back to the Business of Government Hour. I am your host Albert Morales, and this morning's conversation is with Dr. Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner for Human Resources and chief human capital officer at the U.S. Social Security Administration. Also joining us in our conversation from IBM is Solly Thomas.

Dr. Wells, as you know agencies must have an effective strategy for organizing and retaining its intellectual resources and its institutional memory, so to that end, could you elaborate on your efforts to implement an effective knowledge management system and what can you tell us about SSA's knowledge management strategies?

Mr. Wells: Sure Al, and it is especially important for a federal agency that has a program as technically complex as social security. There are many, many rules, many, many nuances, and the experiences of people presenting themselves for services and so it is very important for our workforce to be very precise in the way that they evaluate a case and make benefit determinations.

As a result of that, and as you might imagine, there is voluminous rules and ways in which we present for our trainees, and for people who are journeymen, technical information about the work that they do. We have something referred to as the program operations manual system or POMS, which attempts to present a lot of these questions and answers for people, a lot of this information technically. So in a way there are a lot of knowledge management strategies that social security had to engage in this very naturally in order to do its business.

But what we have tried to do as an organization is use various strategies, various techniques, for both capturing that information and making it accessible and presentable to people who might benefit from it.

So we have done things like having -- establishing communities of practice and communities of interests. In HR, for example, we've tried to put together an HR curriculum that allows us to take our subject-matter experts, and put the information in a format that a young trainee or someone who's being tutored by them, and being, sort of, the baton is being passed from the more seasoned worker to this person who they are sort of grooming. And we've gotten some pretty good results, but that is, as you might imagine a pretty slow and laborious process.

I mean it's very specific between that individual and the person they are trying to groom. Mentoring is a major part of that and that is something that I think is kind of built into the DNA of the agency already, but we've tried to emphasize it in a number of ways, and we tried to formalize it, so that we're making sure that certain knowledge is transferred as it needs to be, to keep this thing going efficiently. Those are some of the things we are doing. You know we have those information portals; we have communities of practice and communities of interest, and communities of action where we are sharing best practices within the agency.

One of the things that my office is responsible for is monitoring the human resources practices across the agency. We have 10 regions and transactional business and that goes on in all of those regions, and so we actually go and monitor as a result of that we capture the best practices from one region and share it with others or with headquarters and vice versa. So there are a number of things we are doing to try to get a handle on knowledge management.

Mr. Morales: That's great. Now a recent global human capital study conducted by IBM, of which Solly Thomas helped execute, showed that over 75 percent of the HR executives interviewed believe that they have difficulty developing future leaders. Now, we talked a little bit about this, but can you provide us some more specifics on SSA's strategic leadership succession planning efforts?

Mr. Wells: I'd be delighted. If we do not have strong competent visionary leadership, there is the greater chance we will go astray even with outstanding oversight from the White House, Congress, the public. And so that's something that we're putting a lot of emphasis on.

Our commissioner, when he joined us a year ago, acknowledged the good work we had been doing in human capital, but challenged us to take it up a notch or two, and so he introduced, or had us introduce a new thinking on leadership. It envisions laying out for our employees agency strategic a very clear message that if you have an interest and the ability to be a leader, we are going to do whatever we can to groom you, to help you develop yourself, and in some instances, to offer competitive programs that you can compete for and get into, as a very deliberate attempt to make you the best that you can be as a leader.

And we've launched, for example, a symposium series which we refer to as leadership matters and we've run about 2000 managers through that. It's really targeted at our mid-level managers and we've run them through it and it's been very, very successful. People are saying that the things they have learned in that three-day symposium is translating very well in making them more effective in the work that they do when they get back to their field offices, or hearing offices, or what have you.

So we're putting a lot of emphasis on that, we believe that because that is a cohort in the agency that turns over, and will be turning over very quickly because of the retirement wave and the aging of the baby boomers, we have to groom people a lot quicker than we've had to in the past.

Mr. Thomas: And Reggie, staying on the development theme, could you talk a little bit more about your key learning and development strategies. In particular, I think our leaders would be interested in hearing more about your learning management system, Go Learn, and how it helps the SSA more closely-linked training to competencies and also to employee career paths?

Mr. Wells: Yeah, the Go Learn, or what was formerly Go Learn, it's actually we just pushed the button on April 1st making it SSA Learn, is basically an ability for our employees on a 24/7 hour basis access e-learning. And basically what they can do through this mechanism is take courses; we offer some 2,500 different courses. They can take them at home because it is internet based, they can take the courses on non-duty hour at their PC, or they can even do it during duty hours if they get the permission of their supervisor to do that, if there is some special training that the supervisor feels is going to be important to their ability to do their fundamental position well. And that has really put a lot of control in the hands of the employees to develop themselves, which is something we have been emphasizing.

I mean, there is no way for us to have all of the resources to train everyone to be the best that they can be, all at once. It is important that employees have mechanisms available to them that they can get, sort of learning as they need it, or learning as they want it, toward either the career path of their own or perhaps even to pursue another career path. And I really do subscribe to that view that you want people to do the work that they are committed to, that they believe in, that they have a passion for.

And sometimes, that means having them go from one track that they may be on to another. We encourage that and we are able to in a large agency like we have, because you could come into the agency as a claims rep, then become a public information officer, or go to work in the legislative office, or go into Human Resources. There is the potential in an organization like SSA to have multiple careers and stay in the same agency. And so this mechanism, this learning management strategy, I think, allows a level of flexibility that is extremely attractive to employees.

Mr. Thomas: Thanks Reggie. We want to shift our discussion a little bit to get your views on the blended workforce, the term commonly used for a workforce that consists of both contractors and federal employees. From your perspective, can you tell us how federal managers can effectively manage this blended workforce, and in particular, what you may see as some of the key differences that are intrinsic to these two core groups?

Mr. Wells: Well, social security and this is something that may vary from agency to agency -- we have a pretty longstanding and healthy use of contractors. There has been, over the last few years, an emphasis on making sure that that work with which is not inherently governmental can be pursued by contractors, and in some cases other federal agencies, a sort of shared service center kind of a concept, and what we have found is that our contractors, and career staff blend extremely well.

One of the areas that I would cite as a very positive example of that is in our information technology world, which Social Security, as you might imagine, has probably the largest repository of medical records and other kinds of personally identifiable information of any system in the world. And in order to manage that well, we have had to rely on both a large cadre of information technology specialists and mangers as well as contract workers.

And they blend very, very well. I think the reason they do is that the government workers recognize that they can't do it by themselves. So there is sort of a recognition that we need a partnership here or team work, in order to get this done. This is very important work, and we can't do it by ourselves. The other part of it is having really good project management skills, and the ability to lay out in fairly fine detail what it is we need for the contractor to do, and how that work is discreet from the work that the government employees do. So there isn't any sort of inherent competition with one another for that. So I think it's worked very well for Social Security. I think we have been very successful in that regard.

Mr. Morales: agency strategic Fantastic. What does the future hold for SSA human capital management, we will ask Dr. Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner for Human Resources and Chief Human Capital Officer, to share with us when the conversation about management continues, on the Business of Government Hour.

(Intermission)

 

Mr. Morales: Welcome back to the Business of Government Hour. I'm your host Albert Morales, and this morning's conversation is with Dr. Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner for Human Resources and chief human capital officer at the U.S. Social Security Administration.

Also joining us in our conversation from IBM is Solly Thomas.

Dr. Wells, as you know, there has been much talk about commercial best practices in government, and particularly in the service area, such human resources, and we've talked a little bit about this, but what emerging technologies hold the most promise for improving the federal management of human resources?

Mr. Wells: Interesting question, Al. We've been very interested in trying to automate some of our programmatic tracking and our management information. So in areas like labor relations, tracking the official time usage of labor leaders, or looking at how our EEO cases are being processed efficiently, making sure that we are automating and we're able to look at how well the cases were working through the system.

Those are some of things that, I think, we feel are going to make a big difference in the area of training in particular. We've probably been the most proactive with our distance learning, our interactive video conferencing system really, and then learning system. It allows us to do distance learning to all those 1,400 offices across the country through a satellite system.

So that we don't have to bring people in large numbers to centralized locations to do training anymore, which is extremely expensive that, you know, that the transportation costs, and the per diem that - to have people come to those large gatherings. This is an extremely expensive proposition. So we've been able to save a lot of money by having that distance learning mechanism, and the one we were referring to earlier, SSA Learn allows us to offer training and the ability for self development. And it takes kind of the burden off of the agency. People can learn at their own rate in some instances, and take advantage of that which they choose to take advantage of.

Mr. Morales: Great, so you mention the future. So I have to ask, how do you envision SSA's human capital needs evolving over, let's say, the next two or three years, but more importantly, how do you envision your office evolving over the same period of time to meet some of these challenges?

Mr. Wells: Well, I think it gets back to an earlier question, I think, Solly posed, about you know, becoming more strategic. I think that we are growing up as strategic partners, and the tools and strategies that are needed for that, we are going to have -- we are going to get better at the whole issue of strategic planning we are going to be doing. But a lot of things are, I think, enduring. I mean, I think that we will always be concerned about our diversity and making the business case for it.

And however, the -- our public changes relative to those kinds of characteristics, we are going to be responsive to workforce planning is always going to be necessary to make sure we get the best bank for the buck, because even if we make out relatively well in a budget cycle, there is never going to be enough money to do all the great things we feel we need to do, to equip our workforce and to serve the public well.

So we are going to have to always prioritize, and have ways of sorting out what's most important, what's least important. Accountability and performance, there is an ever-growing expectation for that, a lot is going on at the national level, and tracking that and evaluating organizations. And SSA is one those organizations that always likes to be viewed as at the top of its game doing the best that it can with what it has been given to work with.

And so we are always going to be striving for recognition and acknowledgment of the excellent work we do. And so we are always going to be self-evaluating to make sure we stay at the top of our game, and that's going to be, I think, a constant persistent expectation that we in HR are going to have to be very sensitive to. And of course it plays out with that human capital survey, where you are asking your employees to give you feedback on how you are doing. And I think that's going to always be there.

Mr. Thomas: As you look to adequately prepare for the workforce of the future, one of the challenges you'll face, no differently than any other agency, is the fact that you have a high number of SSA employees retirement eligible. As I look at some of the statistics, nearly 60 percent over the next 6 or 7 years. What plans are in place to mitigate the effect of this retirement wave?

Mr. Wells: Well, the good news, Solly, is that people don't retire when they are eligible, necessarily, so we are fortunate in that. And again, I go back to it being probably mission-driven. I've talked with employees on the verge of retirement who expressed -- who are really looking to retire, but they express a sense of dread about not being in the mix and sort of in the public, that there may be people who come to their field office, that they have developed a personal relationship with, who may be disabled, or may have some other life circumstance that requires them to need benefits, and they feel personally responsible for that person connecting with those benefits.

So as long as we continue, I think, to attract the right people to social security, which I think, we've done a very, very good job of with our competency-based interview techniques and other strategies, as well as you know, being very clear about what our mission is. As long as we do that, I think, we are going to have people working a little longer than their retirement eligibility date.

Based on our projections, and we've been pretty accurate over the last few years. We are projecting that 23 percent of our workforce is going to retire over the next five years. So some of those people are going to work a little longer, but as we are -- as we have the resources to recruit and hire, we feel pretty good about our chances and our ability to do that. So whatever vacancies we have, we are pretty confident we are going to fill them.

Occasionally, we run into a challenge with a specialty, I mean, actuary is a specialized occupation, and you know, you sometimes have to do some extraordinary things to land the best ones, but -- or in the IT, it could be that way. But I think generally speaking, we have gotten that down to kind of a science. We've viewed some other techniques early -- using early retirement, for example, as a way of flaming the wave.

I think one of things that we have done or tried to do was to manage that wave, so that we didn't have a dramatic peak. At one point we are projecting that there would be at one point a dramatic spike in retirements which could have been devastating. By doing a few things creatively, to manage the wave, we've managed to flatten the wave so that there is no dramatic loss of people at any given point in time, and that has, I think, made some of the difference.

Mr. Thomas: And Reggie, I want to stick with the discussion on retention. The recent IBM global human capital study, one of the findings that it showed was that almost 50 percent of the human resources executives we interviewed, indicated that they are facing higher turnover. And perhaps more than half of those we interviewed are finding skills development within their existing workforce to be a particular challenge.

Now, at SSA, your retention rate is actually one of the best in the federal government, and probably on a related matter, one of the cause-effect, if you will, was that SSA was ranked by the partnership for public services, one of the top 10 places to work. What is the key to your success, and how do you see retention within your organization and your attempts to address that?

Mr. Wells: Solly, I think one of the major issues for us as I've alluded to with a number of the responses I've given is the mission of the agency. I think that single factor is very significant in drawing people to the agency and retaining them once they are there. We try to, as I said, find people who believe in this work, and want to do this work for a career, and we've been very fortunate in that regard. And we are -- and because of career patterns, concerns, and other things, we realize that there may be some shifts in that.

But so far, it's been holding that the mission has been an extremely strong draw, but once you have people in your organization, you have to do the types of things to convey to them that they are important to you that you need them in order to fulfill your mission. And we, particularly in HR, put as much effort into supporting the workforce, knowing that these jobs can be very, very difficult.

We have a few initiatives. One example, I would give you is the initiative we've referred to, sort of an umbrella initiative, caught all ages, all stages, and it was specifically designed with the multigenerational workforce in mind, so that whether you are someone with 35 years of service, and starting to experience elder care issues, or you are a new hire and you don't even have children yet, but you know, that's probably in the not too foreseeable future, so that we provide, you know, counseling and resources and information that might be a benefit to you. Or someone in between, who needs pre-retirement, you know, guidance, they are going to work another 15 to 20 years, but they want to make sure that when their time is over, they are all postured for reasonably good retirement.

We try to provide a lot of work-life balance. We try to make programs available like the flexiplace, where people can work from a remote site in some instances. It's a little tougher for SSA, because with the public contact work that we do, it isn't portable where you can't do it from home. There are also personally identifiable information concerns, about the security of the information that we have on beneficiaries.

So that makes it a little challenging there, but I think those are the kinds of things that you do to recruit and retain a strong workforce. You have to make a commitment to them that you are there for them that you are going to give them the supports they need.

And that's where the tools come in. I mean, it is sometimes challenging having all the resources, to allow people to do their best work, but we try to do the best we can. And our commissioner has spent a large amount of his first year in the position trying to convey information about all the tools and resources we need to do the kind of job. But I think the American public expects, and certainly the White House and Congress expects.

Mr. Morales: Reginald, you earlier you told us just a wonderful story about how you got started. So I'm curious what advise would you give to someone who is out there, perhaps considering a career in public service, whether at a local level or at a federal level?

Mr. Wells: Well, the one thing I would say Al, and I mean this very sincerely, I can't imagine a more meaningful career than working in public service. You know, obviously I'm a little biased, and I'm actually a second-generation Fed, so maybe, you know, I come by naturally. My mother worked for IRS for 45 years, and I don't know if I'm going to do 45, but I really enjoy what I'm doing and I really believe in it. And I think that it really does make a profound difference in how our country operates how the people in it are supported and allowed to lead the lives that they lead. Sometimes we are invisible in that regard, and people don't think about us until you have some natural catastrophe, but when those things, whether it's on a day-to-day basis that you need us, or an episodic basis, I think that public services, there is no finer work that one can do.

And then in terms of rewards, even above and beyond some of the things that a lot of people gravitate to us for, you know, stable pension situation, certain, you know, work-life flexibilities and balances that you are going to have, that you may not have in other occupations or other environments, I think, are extremely important. I think, more than ever before, the opportunities in government are going to be huge.

I think the positive results that we had through the human capital survey also reflected the fact that we had people retiring in larger numbers. Therefore, people in government who were at lower levels of the organization can move up quicker than they have ever been able to before. And I think that makes for an optimism about their futures and their ability to be all that they can be, more quickly, maybe than they could have, had they been a baby boomer.

This is a wonderful time, I think, to come to public service. I think the need is there, I think the opportunities are going to be there, I think like an organization like Social Security, where you could come in and test out different careers, all in one place, is going to be a tremendous draw into the future. And I think the sky is the limit for eager, talented young people, who may want to make a difference in their lives and other peoples. And I would like to take this opportunity, if I might to give the ways in which people can contact us. We have the website which is www.socialsecurity.gov. And a couple of phone numbers I'd like to give you. The general number is 1-800-772-1213 -- that's 1-800-772-1213, and the TTY number for someone who might be hearing impaired is 1-800-325-0778 -- that's 1-800-325-0778.

Mr. Morales: That's a wonderful perspective, thank you. Unfortunately we have reached the end of our time here, but more importantly, Solly and I would like to thank you for your dedicated service to our country both at the local level and now at the federal level.

Mr. Wells: And I thank you for your interest.

Mr. Morales: Great, thanks. This has been the Business of Government Hour, featuring a conversation with Dr. Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner for Human Resources and chief human capital officer at the U.S. Social Security Administration. My co-host has been Solly Thomas, associate partner in IBM's human capital practice.

As you enjoy the rest of your day, please take time to remember the men and women of our armed and civil services abroad, who may not be able to hear this morning's show on how we're improving their government, but who deserve our unconditional respect and support.

For the Business of Government Hour, I'm Albert Morales. Thank you for listening.

Announcer: This has been The Business of Government Hour. Be sure to join us every Saturday at 9:00 a. m., and visit us on the web at businessofgovernment.org. There you can learn more about our programs and get a transcript of today's conversation. Until next week, it's businessofgovernment.org.

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