People-First Policies Will Help Close the Government’s Skills Gap

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Human capital strategies should be baked into long-term strategic plans, a GAO executive said.

To combat the growing skills gap metastasizing across the federal government, agency leaders should incorporate human capital strategies into their long-term strategic plans, Chris Mihm, the Government Accountability Office’s managing director for intergovernmental relations and strategic issues said in Washington Tuesday. 

“Many agencies face a number of critical skills gaps that they have to work their way out of,” Mihm said. “Increasingly, success is going to be thinking in new and creative ways—and that's the link that has to take place between human capital approaches, human capital planning and the mission outcomes that we need to achieve.” 

GAO has been conducting and releasing its High Risk Reports every two years since 2000 to address federal programs and organizations subject to waste, fraud, mismanagement or fundamental deficiencies in human performance. Reflecting on more recent reports, Mihm noted a concerning revelation: 16 of the 35 areas currently on the High Risk List have “a critical skills gap” as among the root causes of the problem being faced. He says the gap is serious as it undermines mission performance across many agencies. 

And the skills gap is also particularly evident among tech-facing roles. 

“A couple of those high-risk areas where we are seeing a critical skills gap that is going to be kind of immediately evident is in cyber issues—obtaining retaining, training, developing the staff that's needed to deal with evolving cyber threats is a big challenge for federal agencies,” Mihm said. “Likewise, IT skills, and acquisitions and maintenance [are] among the governmentwide high-risk human capital critical skills shortages that we see.”

To tackle the gaps now, and ensure they don’t evolve to cause more serious harm later, Mihm said the government needs to ensure that human capital policies, programs and approaches evolve in tandem with the complexities of the types of problems agencies aim to solve. 

He said it is critical for agencies to make sure that they are approaching the problem with a more longer-term outlook and that they are really thinking about the knowledge, skills and abilities they are going to need not just tomorrow, but five, 10 and 15 years down the line.

“Let’s start putting together the hiring strategies and the development strategies that are going to get us there,” he said. 

Mihm explained that one area where agencies can really do this is through succession planning. He also believes agencies should start to shift from a position-based planning to more competency-based planning. And he noted that that shouldn’t be based on today’s competencies, but instead those that the agency will need in the future. 

“It’s the link between strategic planning, strategic foresight and human capital planning—they need to come together within organizations,” he said. “If they are in different silos, very often it's going to take us in a bad direction.”

Mihm also stressed the need for agencies to implement “people-first” policies, not just to close the skills gap but to help keep it closed. He said people are agencies’ most important asset, so they should be at the center of any serious change management strategies the government puts in place. 

“For cost reasons, capacity reasons and change management reasons, we all need to be focusing on our people aspects in agencies,” he said. “The people policies of any organization—and certainly at the federal government—have to be at the center of everything that we are doing and the way we think about delivering service and results for the American people.”