The former Tennessee Commissioner of Human Resources gives tips to achieving large-scale change

Civil service reform is not a new concept.

Federal government stakeholders across the country have propagated the notion of civil service reform, and in Washington, DC, groups huddle together to hear about ways in which they can reinvent the work they do.

Recently, Rebecca Hunter, winner of the Baldrige award for her work under the Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee, spoke at three Civil Service Reform events in the DC area on her work that transformed the way Tennessee addressed human resources (HR). Hunter led implementation of the Tennessee Excellence, Accountability and Management (TEAM) Act, which focuses on recruiting and hiring, performance management, employee appeals, workforce reduction and learning and development — all while maintaining focus on the customer: Tennessee state employees.

Hunter offered attendees tactics she used with the TEAM Act that would institute change within their agencies and organizations, and for federal organizations looking to take swift approaches toward reform, here are three themes that emerged.

  1. Build Strong Relationships. It’s no surprise that Hunter urged event attendees to cultivate strong relationships in their attempts to accomplish long-lasting reform. Gathering stakeholder buy-in at all levels — especially from customers, or those feeling the greatest impacts of reform — proves critical when trying to institute department wide change.Part of establishing strong relationships requires gaining trust, which Hunter recommends doing by “starting with ‘yes.’” First, she explained, identify the outcome of the request; then, ask the right questions that will encourage success. Beginning any conversation with an immediate “no” can turn people away, thus making them less likely to champion future projects. Hunter stressed the importance of gaining respect by identifying solutions — whether they meet the original request or not — and then maintaining that relationship through collaboration and compromise.
  1. Keep Learning — and encourage it among your employees. Essentially, every organization has the responsibility of building its customers. An avid learner herself, Hunter has pushed for ongoing learning and certification among employees. Part of the TEAM Act addressed learning and development, taking “cookie cutter training opportunities” and transforming them into holistic approaches that start from the top. Now, in the state government of Tennessee, all learning and development belongs under HR, which empowered the department to develop supplemental training and learning opportunities for employees.An easy and cost-effective way to encourage continuous training among employee is establishing a leadership council that develops opportunities for everyone. In Tennessee, Hunter explained, participants formed a leadership book club and toastmasters club, and implemented a lunch-and-learn series where executives addressed groups of employees. These methods contributed to improved learning and development throughout the state government.
  1. Capture Data. A self-described “recovering accountant,” Hunter relied on data to demonstrate the value her team had in Tennessee. This, in part, influenced her rationale to lead the Department of HR in achieving a Level III Achievement Award from TNCPE, Tennessee’s not-for-profit Baldrige organization, which measures performance through leadership, strategy, customers, workforce, operations and results.Identifying areas of success and improvement through data impacted Hunter’s decision-making. Hunter knew that implementation of the TEAM Act proved instrumental for the state government, but it couldn’t be her team’s single success. To combat this, they created a dashboard with their work processes and then tracked performance data, which identified core processes and ensured their work stayed relevant. Regularly they review this data and ensure continuous improvement, so as not to remain stagnant or, as Hunter said, “be a one-hit wonder.”Demonstrating the impact an organization has, whether through the Baldrige Program, an internal dashboard or another data measurement method, can legitimize work and portray success visibly.

Hunter acknowledged that while the Tennessee government is the largest employer in the state, compared to the federal government, the number of people it employs is fairly low. Still, organizations at the federal level can focus on accomplishing small, immediate changes that lead to greater success in institutional transformation and employee development. Once they’ve gained this momentum, they can work toward achieving the larger goals requiring legislation.

These three strategies might not change an organization completely, but based on Hunter’s success, they will direct organizations toward successful reform.

Read more about Tennessee’s HR reforms here.