Government's IT Skills Shortage Points to a Future of Failure


Agencies fall short when it comes to having the top-notch talent to effectively develop, leverage or understand technology.

Government agencies are still falling short when it comes to having the top-notch talent needed to effectively develop, leverage or understand technology. And the chances for attracting that talent from the outside are grim as agencies grapple with a severe shortage of workers with technical skills, according to a new report.

The report, “A Future of Failure? The Flow of Technology Talent into Government and Civil Society,” commissioned by the Ford Foundation and MacArthur Foundation and written by Washington, D.C.-based Freedman Consulting, highlighted the need government agencies have for highly-skilled technology talent, particularly in light of recent examples like the botched rollout and the National Security Agency’s massive telecommunications surveillance program.

“Deep questions remain about the ability for many areas of government and civil society to identify, cultivate and retain individuals with the necessary skills for success in a world increasingly driven by information technology,” the report states.

The report, which is based on nearly 50 interviews with experts in the public, private and nonprofit sectors and academia, found that the government’s struggles extend beyond just inadequate in-house expertise and an insufficient pipeline of talent. Government’s efforts to recruit and retain highly skilled tech talent are often thwarted by a number of barriers, including inadequate compensation, the inability to pursue groundbreaking work and a culture averse to hiring and retaining innovative individuals.   

High tech workers also perceive the private sector as more lucrative and more likely to foster a culture of innovation, openness and creativity, while government agencies are perceived as stifling innovation.

“My experience is that people who are really technologically astute want to work for companies,” said one respondent of his perceptions in Silicon Valley. “And there’s this feeling -- this real libertarian feeling that really runs through the engineering community -- that you can do more by being in a company than in academia or government or a nonprofit.”

One potential solution to the technology brain drain in government could be to require students in technical tracks to take political science courses, and for government and academia to encourage “community service in the digital age.” Another solution could be to encourage university public policy and public administration programs to recruit faculty who can teach classes that ensure all graduates have some command of technology.

“That way, any interested graduate can have a meaningful understanding of how technology works and intersects with other domains and practices,” one respondent noted. “This will not fully meet the skill needs, but it will be an important component.”

Aside from traditional solutions, such as expanding internship programs, encouraging job rotations from the public and private sector and changing government culture, the report recommended a physical, collaborative center where technology professionals from all sectors can participate in boot camps to learn more about public policy, whether it’s to launch a start-up, extend cooperation between policymakers and scholars, or to draw IT students’ attention to public policy issues, the report noted.

“While the problem is daunting, the stakes are high,” the report states. “It will be critical for civil society and government to develop sustainable and effective pathways for the panoply of technologists and experts who have the skills to create truly 21st century institutions.” 

(Image via manzrussali/