Touching the Lives of Millions

February 1, 1998
Workforce talked with Janice R. Lachance, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, about managing human resources for the federal government:

Q: What is your professional background, and how did you come to work with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM)?
A: I first came to OPM in August 1993 as director of communications. Then in 1996, I was named chief of staff at OPM and served in that position until I was confirmed as OPM deputy director in August 1997. This was after our former director, James B. King, returned to academia. Prior to joining OPM, I served as director of communications and political affairs for the American Federation of Government Employees (a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO). I'm a graduate of Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, and received my law degree from Tulane University School of Law in New Orleans.

Q: What do you like most about working for the federal government?
A: It gives me the opportunity to effect change on a large scale and truly impact the lives of millions of Americans. This is a very small agency by federal standards, but we touch the lives of 10 million Americans every day: employees, retirees and their families. And of course, we provide policy and human resources leadership for two million civilian employees.

Q: What's the toughest part of your job?
A: Constantly dealing with shrinking resources. Because the OPM significantly downsized after Clinton took office in 1993, we've cut our workforce by 45 percent and have shrunk our budget by a third. The era of big government is over, but OPM [managers] still want to make an impact by expanding our investment in technology and providing better customer service.

You can achieve downsizing and handle it humanely
Q: What advice do you have for HR professionals in the public sector?
A: For those in human resources, there are two things: Whether you're reorganizing, refocusing your mission or downsizing, make the decision and move quickly. What we've found is that the situation doesn't get better. Also, look at the impact of everything you do from a humane point of view. You can achieve downsizing and budget cuts-and handle it all humanely. These strategies aren't in conflict. We've been able to prove that at OPM.

Q: What skills are the most important for HR in the 21st century?
A: Flexibility, an ability to motivate and gather information from the bottom up rather than from the top down and communication. There's a number of people who operate in the old style-they think they know everything and believe knowledge is power-and so they don't share information.

Q: Who was one of your key mentors, and what did you learn from that person?
A: My key mentor was John Sturdivant. He was the national president of American Federation of Government Employees. He recently died. What I learned from him was the ability to look at the big picture and to never get so engrossed in the day-to-day issues that you lose sight of goals and mission-and where your organization has to go. Coupled with that, one also has to have reliance and faith in the front-line employees who deliver the goods to customers on a day-to-day basis. He always said, "Sometimes, you have to yield to win."

Q: What human resources practices has OPM learned from the private sector?
A: It was clear after 1992 that we would have to scale back. So OPM has taken a page from the private-sector experience in facing the challenges of today's federal workforce. We learned from companies such as Saturn and Corning that labor-management partnerships are key to the success of any organization. Through a strong OPM labor-management partnership, the agency crystallized its mission and redesigned its function with customer service as the goal.

Workforce, February 1998, Vol. 77, No. 2, pp. 62.