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June 21, 2004
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Good Morning Counties. This Is Your HR Wake-Up Call!

This is a follow-up to a previous HR Doctor article about the "Age of HR" (check it out at

Human Resource liabilities and opportunities will define the success of public agencies well past the next decade. The signs are very clear. Demographic changes, including the emerging "senior-focused" America, along with other needs in an increasingly diverse nation, clearly point to the need for a more proactive and innovative public sector.

The answer to keeping up with needs in the criminal justice, human services, health care, community planning, finance, general administration - indeed, every public service - rests in having a committed, trained and accountable staff. Even the explosion of e-government services over the Internet does not preclude the need for great staff members, even though it will change the way those staff members do their work.

How prepared are counties for the challenges to attract and retain a great workforce? How prepared are we as public administrators to anticipate and prevent liabilities to seize on and develop positive opportunities? "Not very well" is the answer suggested by a recent survey conducted by NACo’s Financial Services Center. More than 600 smaller counties (populations under 50,000) were invited to participate and nearly 23 percent responded. The results are important to help elected and appointed officials ask insightful questions, plan for the future and take immediate action.

Seventy-eight percent of the counties report not having a formal HR training program. Half of the counties responding report that little or no HR training - formal or otherwise - is available to managers and supervisors. Fifty-five percent report their counties have been the subject of lawsuits or EEO complaints. Eighty-one percent report not having a 24/7 source of advice or help in responding to HR problems. Finally, over 35 percent report candidly that the county does not manage its human-resource issues well.

That situation is far out of sync with the current and coming needs of public agencies. Responsible officials must address these needs with at least the same gusto with which other serious organizational needs are met. The process begins with recognition. Without strong proactive HR practices, no service will work well. Sheriff’s deputies, engineers, accountants, firefighters and those in a thousand other typical county job classifications, as well as their managers, need the confidence and support which comes with HR innovation. The best counties prepare for the future and act on the preparations! This applies to HR as much as it applies to security and community planning.

After recognition comes action. A majority of survey respondents want training help! Forty-nine percent want coaching of managers and supervisors to control liabilities. Help with policy development, with diagnosing HR weakness, and business planning for improvement is also part of the improvement recipe.

Support for acute problem solving (what the HR Doctor calls "the HR ER") is also high on the list of needs, as are security advice and assistance and help with classification and pay issues. The needs list goes on but the clear message transcends any one particular service.

The message for counties is to prepare now for better HR management, not after the plaintiff’s attorneys have already found parking spaces in the county lot. One county which recently lost a "hostile work environment" case was ordered to pay an award equal to about one-third of its annual budget - from one case. Take direct organizational responsibility for improving HR - an increasingly compelling imperative in a modern government.

Here’s to the fun of being "HR proactive" in a world where some organizations appear to be in a persistent vegetative state!

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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