International Trade:

USTR Would Benefit from Greater Use of Strategic Human Capital Management Principles

GAO-06-167: Published: Dec 6, 2005. Publicly Released: Jan 5, 2006.

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The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has a unique role in coordinating trade policy, resolving disagreements, and framing issues for presidential decision through an interagency trade policy process. In recent years, USTR's increased workload from numerous new regional and bilateral free trade agreement negotiations and a new round of multilateral negotiations at the World Trade Organization has raised concerns about its human capital strategy. GAO examined whether USTR is pursuing an effective human capital strategy that supports the ability of its workforce to accomplish its mission. Specifically, GAO (1) reviewed USTR's commitment to strategic human capital leadership and planning and (2) analyzed to what extent USTR has used human capital tools to address its workforce challenges.

USTR could benefit from greater use of strategic human capital management principles in leadership and planning, considering that its small size and interagency trade leadership and coordination role give it a unique responsibility to lead the trade agenda. First, USTR has not sustained the leadership resources for human capital; for example, the top human capital management post has not been filled for over 1 1/2 years. Second, USTR has not undertaken formal strategic human capital planning to mitigate the risks inherent in its dependency--as a "networked organization"--on interagency resources to achieve its mission. Therefore, it does not have a method to account for changes in other agencies' resources that might impact its ability to achieve its mission. Third, USTR has focused its human capital planning efforts primarily on short-term responses to trade negotiating needs identified in its 2-year budget planning process; it has not conducted ongoing parallel efforts to analyze longer-term workforce needs. USTR's efforts to address its specific workforce challenges could benefit from greater use of human capital tools. First, USTR could use more of the existing federal human capital flexibilities to better tailor its human capital approaches to organizational needs. Although the agency has used and benefited from some special hiring and pay authorities, such as the use of higher-than-minimum salary offers, it has yet to take advantage of others, such as retention bonuses. Second, while USTR prides itself on being a results-oriented agency, most USTR staff are not subject to agencywide performance expectations linked to organizational goals. While managers have stressed the importance of certain individual skills needed to advance USTR's mission, most staff are held accountable to a range of expectations that vary among offices.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response, U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) adopted a number of policies aimed at recruitment and retention, including tuition assistance, retention incentives, incentive awards, alternative work schedules, and telecommuting. USTR has also used Superior Qualification appointments in filling attorney positions.

    Recommendation: To improve USTR's human capital management, the U.S. Trade Representative should develop a strategic human capital management system. The system should include, tailored to its small size and unique role, determining if additional use of available pay and hiring flexibilities would better position USTR to hire and retain experts.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of the U.S. Trade Representative

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response, U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) now systematically utilizes USTR human capital data maintained by the Executive Office of the President. For example, the data was used to develop USTR's Strategic Human Capital Plan and is routinely used when the Human Capital Planning Steering Committee considers policy changes. In addition, USTR now analyzes employee responses to the Annual Employee Survey and the Federal Human Capital Survey to assess career development needs and as a means for a strategic approach to training.

    Recommendation: To improve USTR's human capital management, the U.S. Trade Representative should develop a strategic human capital management system. The system should include, tailored to its small size and unique role, improving its ability to utilize data for measuring the effectiveness of human capital approaches in support of its mission and goals.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of the U.S. Trade Representative

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response, U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), in conjunction with the Office of Personnel Management, developed a Strategic Human Capital Plan and Succession Plan, and formed a Human Capital Planning Steering Committee comprised of Assistant USTRs to institutionalize strategic workforce planning.

    Recommendation: To improve USTR's human capital management, the U.S. Trade Representative should develop a strategic human capital management system. The system should include, tailored to its small size and unique role, undertaking strategic workforce planning in order to optimize its workforce's continued capacity to achieve its mission.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of the U.S. Trade Representative

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's second recommendation, U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) took steps to address this recommendation by initiating a pilot Performance-based Program Management system, which was intended to be the first step in developing a process at USTR for formulating budgets and evaluating resource needs that could then be exported to other trade agencies. The pilot has yet to be implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve USTR's human capital management, the U.S. Trade Representative should develop a strategic human capital management system. The system should include, tailored to its small size and unique role, developing an interagency resource planning method with appropriate participation from key agency stakeholders.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of the U.S. Trade Representative

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response, U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) filled its position of Assistant USTR for Administration with a senior official with extensive human capital experience, and also filled two vacant human resources positions.

    Recommendation: To improve USTR's human capital management, the U.S. Trade Representative should develop a strategic human capital management system. The system should include, tailored to its small size and unique role, filling its senior human capital management positions with human capital professionals who will significantly contribute to strategic planning and decision making.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of the U.S. Trade Representative

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response, U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) completed its Strategic Plan, which in turn provided a framework for a complete redevelopment of its SES and non-SES performance management systems. USTR has obtained full OPM certification for its SES Performance Management Plan. Both the SES and non-SES systems are structured to hold managers accountable for ensuring strategic goal alignment and for communicating performance standards to employees.

    Recommendation: To improve USTR's human capital management, the U.S. Trade Representative should develop a strategic human capital management system. The system should include, tailored to its small size and unique role, developing agencywide performance criteria for staff to align management expectations with critical organizational goals.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of the U.S. Trade Representative

 

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