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A Daunting Task

Leading the U.S. Office of Personnel Management through massive changes following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks took a special kind of poise and experience. Luckily, Kay Coles James had both.

Saturday, October 16, 2004
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As human resource executive jobs go, you'd be hard-pressed to find one more overwhelming than managing the 1.8 million-plus civilian workforce for the U.S. government. When you add in the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, the job suddenly seems even more daunting.

Yet, for Kay Coles James, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in Washington and one of Human Resource Executive's Honor Roll recipients for 2004, it is a challenge she has met head-on.

Prior to being named to her current post in July 2001, James had a long, impressive resume, including serving as a senior cabinet officer for the governor of Virginia, associate director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and assistant secretary for public affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As it turns out, she needed every bit of that experience and more to take on her role at OPM.

When the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred, James immediately faced the first major challenge in her current post, playing a key role in leadership and teamwork during a time of true crisis.

For starters, she became directly involved with the launch of the Transportation Security Administration and, when President Bush signed the Homeland Security Act into law, she worked hand-in-hand with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in creating a flexible, contemporary and mission-centered personnel system for the new department's civilian employees.

In fact, James' work with DHS meant helping manage the largest reorganization of the American government in more than 50 years, by bringing together 170,000 employees from 22 different agencies and 11 labor unions -- certainly not your typical HR effort.

James' success with Homeland Security and DHS resulted in another key challenge: leading the development of the Department of Defense National Security Personnel System, which eventually will transform the personnel practices for the entire civilian workforce of more than 600,000 Defense Department employees.

And that was just the beginning of James' work with OPM. Long-term, she expects to transform the federal government's human resource efforts into a much more modern approach.

"That negative image some people have of federal employees -- it does exist. And we have to clean up those small pockets where it does," James said in an interview with cyberFEDS, a Human Resource Executive sister publication. "This can't be about tweaking our image; we need to make some substantive changes." As it turns out, James wasn't just creating good sound bites with that comment. She was laying out her plans for OPM.

Streamlining Plans

As part of her vision to streamline the government's recruiting and hiring practices, James modernized the government's Web-based recruitment site, USAJOBS.com. Visits to the newly designed site soared from 30,000 a day to the current 200,000 a day.

James has also played a key role in championing legislation to give agencies new flexibility to hire quickly, while at the same time challenging them to meet their specific time targets for filling federal jobs.

To improve the competitive benefits package available to federal employees, OPM established flexible-spending accounts to ensure federal employees enjoyed the same levels and options of benefits available in the private sector. James also introduced the government's first long-term care insurance package. In the first year alone, 120,000 employees enrolled in FSA and LTC plans.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of James' work for the White House so far has been her effort in making "strategic management of human capital" a front-burner initiative -- a directive that came from the president.

The result is the Human Capital Assessment and Accountability Framework, which has several key elements, including strategic alignment, workforce planning and deployment, leadership and knowledge management, a results-oriented performance culture, talent and accountability.

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As part of this work, James helped establish detailed standards for each element of the framework. At the same time, the president's management scorecard was established to assess agencies on their progress.

Human capital officers from OPM now measure and score each agency's progress on a quarterly basis, with the focus on ensuring that human capital management is mission-driven and contributing to meeting strategic objectives.

In a related move, James worked with Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, to pass the Chief Human Capital Officers Act in 2002, establishing a permanent Chief Human Capital Officers Council. James chairs the council, which includes top-level officials from each of the Cabinet's departments.

"We are committed to attracting the best to serve our country as federal employees," says James in an interview on the OPM Web site. "OPM is working to change the image of public service to reflect the challenges our workforce meets every day."

One of her toughest challenges has been her work in uniting federal workers and management -- an uphill climb, but one that can be accomplished, she believes.

Steven R. Cohen, a senior adviser to James, said in a letter to this magazine that, in his 42 years of working in OPM, James is easily one of the strongest, most effective leaders he's known.

"I've had a front-row seat to her work in conjunction with Tom Ridge in developing the historic legislation that created the department itself, and [that] serves as the basis for a modern personnel system to support those who protect America from threats both foreign and domestic," writes Cohen, who came out of retirement at James' request. "In three short years, Kay has made a critical contribution to the future of American civil service by working tirelessly to make it more responsive to the human resource requirements of the new millennium."

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