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Federal HR applications need a makeover, Trump administration says

U.S. government HR systems are heavily customized and out-of-date. They can't share data effectively, crimping the use of people analytics tools. Trump wants to change that.

Federal HR applications are mostly on premises, heavily customized, marginally interoperable and in need of an upgrade, according to President Donald Trump's administration.

Many federal HR system processes still use paper. Electronic personnel files contain "scanned documents of old documents." The government does not have a "truly digital and interoperable" document system, the administration said in its just-released 2019 budget proposal to Congress.

The Trump administration is proposing a federal IT budget of $80 billion, a 5.2% spending increase that will help migrate systems to commercial cloud providers and modernize "antiquated and often unsecured legacy systems." Federal HR applications are in particular need of help, especially in analyzing data to improve workforce management, the administration noted.

The federal government has a massive amount of data on its 2.1 million civilian employees, but "agencies are still making decisions by the seat of their pants," said Jeffrey Neal, a former chief human capital officer for the Department of Homeland Security.

Federal agencies aren't able to use that data for analytics in a way a modern employer might, Neal said.

"It's a data piggy bank; the data keeps getting put in there, but nobody ever takes it out," said Neal, now a senior vice president at consulting and technology services provider ICF in Fairfax, Va.

The Trump administration wants "a single electronic identifier for employees that follows them throughout their career." Such an identifier "will enable agencies to advance their use of data-driven human resource decisions."

Ray Bjorklund, president of government IT market research firm BirchGrove Consulting in Potomac, Md., said he believes the Trump administration's federal HR applications plan is "notional," meaning "the administration is pointing out examples of process problems that should be addressed." But creating the type of HR interoperability that the administration wants will be difficult, he said.

It's a data piggy bank; the data keeps getting put in there, but nobody ever takes it out.
Jeffrey Nealformer chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security

Bjorklund said federal HR applications managers would need specifics and technical models, including shared processes that could be used for HR functions, such as onboarding.

"There are many legacy HR systems out there," Bjorklund said. Most of the larger agencies have their own HR systems, built to implement specific rules and also tailored to the way the agency does its back-office business. There will be a need for agencies to have a common data dictionary and definitions to get all the agencies on the same page.

The administration's budget doesn't spell out the specific cost of such a systemwide upgrade. Neal said he believes HR's problems will ultimately be fixed with a migration to the cloud.

Similar to the private sector, the federal government is facing a vendor time clock for on-premises HR and ERP systems support. Many federal agencies use Oracle HR systems that have promises of support at least through 2027.

"At some point, the government is going to have to move to a more modern solution. It's simply going to have to do it," Neal said.

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