But as he prepares to retire after 36 years in Congress, the Hawaii Democrat says there remains work to be done.
"The federal government is facing some of the most complex challenges in our nation's history — and doing it with serious budget constraints," Akaka, 88, said last week during his final hearing as chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the federal workforce.
"To do more with less, it is more important than ever that we have a first-class workforce," he said. "The government must make the proper investments in its employees and take the steps necessary to recruit, retain, and develop its talent."
The subject of the hearing was "Investing in an Effective Workforce." But as the meeting unfolded in a wood-paneled room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, it became a celebration of Akaka's advocacy for federal employees.
Wearing a lei apparently given to him by Sen. Ron Johnson, the top Republican on the panel, Akaka listened as witness after witness thanked him for his support.
"You have been a stalwart friend of federal employees, both during the 14 years you served in the House of Representatives and during your distinguished 22-year career in the U.S. Senate," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the 150,000-member National Treasury Employees Union. "Your advocacy on behalf of the federal workforce, from your efforts to ensure fair pay and benefits to your actions to protect collective bargaining rights, will be sorely missed by federal employees everywhere."
"The federal workforce has been fortunate to have such a forward-thinking advocate on its side," said John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management. "Your efforts and priorities have closely aligned with those of the administration and have led the way to important changes in the federal employment experience."
"Even before you assumed a leadership role on this subcommittee in 2005, you distinguished yourself as a champion of better government, and a friend to the people serving in government," said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington nonprofit that encourages careers in government. "Building a world-class federal workforce is an immense challenge, and we thank you for your tireless work."
Stier then pivoted to talk about the challenges ahead.
"Only 13 percent of college students say they are knowledgeable about federal opportunities and how to apply for them," he told the subcommittee in prepared testimony. "For those who are aware of federal opportunities, the lengthy and cumbersome hiring process turns top talent away."
Stier praised successful legislation backed by Akaka and Republican former Sen. George Voinovich to streamline the hiring process, including allowing applicants to submit traditional resumes for federal jobs in place of lengthy essays.
Two years later, he said, most agencies now are using resumes in the initial stage of the application process, applicants are receiving more frequent and timely notification on the status of their applications, and hiring managers have become more involved in the hiring process, increasing the quality of the hires made.
"We believe it is critical that the next administration, whether it is led by President Obama or Governor [Mitt] Romney, sustain these efforts and make hiring reform a priority," Stier said. He spoke of tracking progress on reforms and holding executives accountable for recruiting and hiring.
Kelley praised Akaka's Whistleblower Protection Act, which passed the Democratic Senate this year, but has not been taken up by the Republican House. She said the legislation would "restore and expand protections for federal employees who disclose waste, fraud or abuse in the federal government," and the Treasury employees union would continue to push for House consideration.
William L. Bransford, general counsel of the Senior Executives Association and a representative of the Government Managers Coalition, spoke of the need to train federal supervisors in managing personnel.
"Often supervisory employees are promoted based on their technical skills in a certain area, not their management capabilities," he said. "However, upon reaching a supervisory position, these employees must work within their issue area and take on the added responsibility of managing complex personnel systems, conducting performance reviews, and dealing with personnel issues, such as adverse action claims.
"Unfortunately, most employees do not receive initial or ongoing training in the areas critical to effective management."
While current law requires agencies to create basic training programs for managers, he said, little guidance is provided on the types of training managers should receive or how often training must be conducted, and there are no systems to ensure required training is taking place.