Moments of Pain & Glory: Paul Bartley, US Dept of Health & Human Services

Paul S. Bartley is the Director of the Program Support Center (PSC), the Shared Service provider for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which has been operating for 14 years. Paul was recently recognized as runner-up for Contribution to industry Thought Leader at the 13th Annual Shared Services Week in Orlando. The PSC provides more than 60 products and services on a competitive, fee-for-service basis for HHS, as well as approximately 14 other executive departments and 20 independent federal agencies.

SSON: Paul you have been Director of the program Support Center (PSC) for two years now, what for you have the main challenges been?

Paul Bartley: We have been around for fourteen years, but a lot of our processes and tools have been around for fourteen years too. With government, things don’t change very quickly. So my challenge has been to come in and assess where we are and put together a strategic plan to move us forward to where we need to be in the future. And a lot of that is just modernizing our operations, implementing new technology and getting the right people onboard. Getting the people part right is one of my biggest challenges. The most frustrating moments for me in this role are when I lose good people, or I am unable to bring on people that I have identified as great resources.

SSON: Is that something that happens frequently and how do you deal with it?

PB: I lost one of my key middle managers recently; it doesn’t happen every day or every week, but when it does happen it is very frustrating because even though the economy is not great, the government does not pay as well as the private sector. So we have to recruit people who want to serve the government. But sometimes their family situations or just their personal financial situations prevent them from staying. The person I lost recently left for a ten percent increase at another employer and he just couldn’t turn it down because he’s got little kids and has to plan for college and things like that.

SSON: Do you think the public sector is potentially more appealing to employees during the economic slump as it offers more security against job losses?

PB: For those who value that, it definitely is. But the kind of people that we look for in Shared Services tend to be the risk takers, the ones that don’t mind putting their necks out if they can. They look at the rewards versus the risk and make that computation. Sometimes the people that want security are not the best for this environment. In that way, PSC is different than the rest of government.

SSON: Do you believe the public sector will increase salaries so it can be more competitive with the private sector when it comes to attracting employees?

PB: I don’t think that’s too likely because it will mean an increase in overall personnel costs. I’d be happy just to change the way we do it. It’s not so much about total pay; it is the components of pay. If I could offer pay which was more closely tied to performance, then I could have more wiggle room and I could reward people that do take risks. Right now our annual increases are based on inflation; they have nothing to do with how successful you are at your job. We do have a bonus component, but that has been cut back recently.?But, I have great hope with the new administration coming in; I think that this administration may be more open to rewarding federal employees in a unique way. President Obama came in on a platform of change. And I would love to see some changes in how we hire, and how we reward people.

SSON: Challenges aside, have there been moments over the past two years when you’ve stood back and thought what you are doing has been really worthwhile?

PB: Definitely. We put together our strategic plan not long ago, and it has fifteen different initiatives contained in it, many of which are underway at the moment, and they needed volunteers to push them forward. The biggest day for me in the last three months was when we had an all-hands meeting and we announced the initiatives to the employees. A record number of people signed up to be a part of the program, and our initiative teams are fully staffed now. It is very encouraging to see that people are buying into the need for change and that they want to be part of the change. They feel like they have something to offer, so just the whole idea of people volunteering and wanting to participate is reward for me.

SSON: So when you talk about change what do you mean by 'change’?

PB: There are three areas where we need to make changes; people, process and technology. In the people area, it may not be replacing a particular person; it may be giving an employee new skills by training them and identifying any gaps in their knowledge or skill set. On the process side, this ties in with the technology we’re using. I’m talking about processes that have been around for decades, which have not seen the benefit of new technology. We’ve got a lot of different systems, and not all of them speak to each other, and not all of them are configured properly. We need to go with fewer systems and leaner processes.

SSON: The Center has been running effectively for fourteen years, what advice would you give to younger Shared Service Centers who are only starting their journeys?

PB: My advice is not to lose sight of innovation. I think that may be what happened here, frankly . Fourteen years ago, we were one of the Shared Service groups Al Gore inspired with his "reinventing government" initiative. It was an innovative idea at the time that got us started in the right direction. But, unless you take a look every few years and ask what can be done differently, you end up losing innovation. In our case, we didn’t have any mechanism in place to ensure that every few years we said, "let’s take a look at what we have been doing, examine the changes going on in the industry, and the actions we need to to take what to respond to that change?" So, unless we institutionalize the notion of making continuous improvements, practices tend to get stale.

A new captive shared service entity that has stood out to me is the NASA Shared Service Center. They have an amazing operation. And I think one reason for this is because their operation has only been set up in the past two years or so. So everything is new and everything is the latest and greatest in terms of processes and technology, even the people working there, because they have started in a new location more or less from scratch.

SSON: What do you think has been your best mistake in terms of lessons learned either in your current role or at a previous organization?

PB: I was at another government agency before this: the Voice of America. And, my big regret there was that I didn’t engage enough. I always took the safe road; I was very conservative, and I didn’t rock the boat. When I left there after three years, I looked back and realized that there were so many things that I could’ve done successfully, if I had just pushed. We didn’t reinvent anything when I was there. We did go through a reorganization, but that was part of a merger between the Voice of America and a unit called WorldNet. Looking back, I think that I could have led a much bigger change effort in the areas I outlined earlier - people, processes and technology - in addition to merging the two organizations. And knowing that fact drives me to push for change in my new job because I don’t want that kind of regret.

SSON: Is there anyone that has influenced you on your journey to where you are today within or outside the Shared Services space?

PB: Sure, I would have to go back to NASA again. Rick Arbuthnot, the Executive Director there, has inspired me. One of the decisions that I made when I first took this job was to go to the leaders of other Shared Service Centers and see how they were doing it. I decided I wasn’t going to sit back and try to figure out all of this stuff on my own. Frankly, I think that is one reason why I won the award. It is not that I am a genius or some great thinker; but, I was smart enough to go out and see what ideas other people in the industry had. Rick was one of the first people I had heard about. So, I sought him out and visited with him at his facility a couple of times. He’s a pioneer. It’s odd in a way that I’m operating at a very mature Shared Services Center and he’s working at an organization that is only a few years old, but I am learning from him.

SSON: Finally Paul, what legacy would you like to leave behind?

PB: One of our major successes has been to keep our costs low. In fact, we have consistently cut costs. On average, seventy-five percent of our rates have either stayed the same or went down for three years in a row. It is unsustainable to continue to have that kind of success, but I would like to try and continue to keep costs low. The next step is to improve quality and that requires us to do a little bit of investing, which potentially may involve raising costs; however, the investments need to be made in order to meet current and emerging customers’ needs. At the end of the day, when I leave the PSC I would like people to say that the organization is much better off - in terms of costs and service quality - than compared to when I arrived. Costs and service quality are the two things that our customers really care about. There are definitely other things that matter, but if you can cover those two, I think you’ll have happy customers.