Unleashing Digital Talent in the Next Administration

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To attract cybersecurity and IT specialists, the government should use existing flexibilities in its system of hiring, training and nurturing talent.

W. Scott Gould is a senior adviser at Boston Consulting Group and former deputy secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department. Jeffrey Neal is a senior vice president at ICF International, former chief human capital officer for the Homeland Security Department, and publisher of the blog ChiefHRO.com.

This is the first part in a series of two columns. Read the second column here.

The adage “good help is hard to find” is especially true for IT talent in the federal government. The White House recently announced its Federal Cybersecurity Workforce Strategy, which includes a goal of hiring an additional 3,500 cybersecurity and IT specialists by January 2017.

The use of existing flexibilities in the government’s system of hiring, training and nurturing talent could enable the government to meet that goal and improve performance today.

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But many senior IT and human resources managers do not know how to use the system well enough to make this happen. And further, in some areas, the system is so badly broken it is impossible to make progress without substantive reform. The next president should take a pragmatic path to hire more and better IT talent through existing hiring laws, while also enacting a targeted reform program to deliver even better mission results.


In fiscal 2017, the federal government will spend almost $90 billion to buy, build and maintain a complex IT infrastructure essential to mission support for the largest organization in the free world.

Despite the enormous budget and the obvious importance of IT to federal mission accomplishment, the government still struggles to deliver IT projects on time, on budget and that meet requirements. Only 77 percent of current IT projects are on schedule and only 72 percent are on budget. The Office of Management and Budget reports that more than 25 percent of current IT investments are at medium or high risk of not meeting their project goals.

Government is not alone in this—in 2013, Computerworld cited the findings from a Standish Group study showing that from 2003 to 2012, only 6.4 percent of 3,555 commercial and government IT projects in its database with labor costs over $10 million were successful.

IT services and projects are delivered by a hybrid workforce of more than 82,000 federal IT employees working alongside contractors who operate in a largely different world in terms of pay, training and job flexibility. A strong federal IT bench is critical to the government’s ability to manage the billions of IT dollars it spends every year.

Yet, the government loses 5,000 IT workers every year, with high-demand professionals, such as those in cybersecurity, leaving the government because of a combination of frustration, poor training and comparatively low pay. Those who remain struggle to get training to keep their skills current, while agencies are failing to bring in younger workers with high-demand skills.

The Professional Services Council’s 2015 Federal Chief Information Officer and Chief Information Security Officer survey reported that CIOs hope to “attract fresh, forward-thinking candidates who can begin specializing in areas such as: applications, infrastructure, cybersecurity, systems engineering and project management.” Yet, in the past three years, less than 17 percent of new IT hires have been under age 30.

The 2016 National Academy of Public Administration/ICF International Federal Leaders Digital Insight Study found a third of federal leaders do not believe their agencies have enough employees with current digital skills, while 56 percent believe their agencies do not invest enough in training employees on new digital technology.

That combination of high demand, low training and inadequate numbers of skilled workers increases the already high risks IT investments will not produce promised results.

NAPA convened a roundtable of current and former senior IT and human resources officials in May 2016 to discuss the challenges and solutions for IT talent in the federal government. We participated in the discussion. The group reached agreement on several underlying causes of poor performance and outlined approaches to improve IT talent management.

Solvable Problems

The NAPA Roundtable outlined eight underlying talent management problems that hamper government’s digital success.

Hiring Process Simply Doesn't Work Fast Enough: One participant in the NAPA roundtable described the process a former private-sector employer used to hire tech talent (“We decided we had to send offer letters the same or next day if we really wanted someone”) and compared that with a government process that routinely took 90 days or more.

Students graduating with engineering undergraduate experience and a master’s degree in public administration from top-ranked schools wait several months for a response from government on entry-level positions.

Government’s Culture Doesn't Promote Skills Development: Digital and cyber technology are evolving so rapidly even extremely talented people can find their skills becoming stale if they do not develop them. The federal government faces a number of problems.

First, it does not invest enough money in training employees. Training budgets are among the first to be cut, which affects agencies’ ability to determine what skills they should be developing in their workforce and compromises their ability to implement a comprehensive workforce planning process.

Second, supervisors do not encourage training. Third, and perhaps most important—federal workers have not been conditioned to view themselves as most responsible for their own career development. Although some private-sector employers invest significant resources in workforce training, employees carry some of the load as well.

As one roundtable participant put it: “My experience in the private sector is that employees recognize their skills are what makes them marketable. If they want to have a successful career, they have to invest their own time and money in keeping their skills up-to-date.”

Agency Leaders Don't Provide a Positive Work Environment: There are clear distinctions among agencies on the subject of employee engagement. The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey shows at some agencies, employees respect leaders and their co-workers and they feel valued and respected. At others, employees are clearly unhappy and do not see a workplace that builds trust and respect.

Morale Can Drive Turnover: In 2015, NASA, the highest-rated large agency in the Partnership for Public Service Best Places to Work rankings lost 4.5 percent of its GS-2210 IT specialists. The Homeland Security Department, the lowest ranked, lost 7 percent.

If DHS had the same turnover rate as NASA, it would have lost 100 fewer IT specialists. And that was in just one year. Further, DHS is a lead agency for cybersecurity in the federal government.

Employees in Many Agencies Don't See a Career Path That Entices Them to Stay: As one roundtable participant succinctly put it, “People often have to leave their agency to get to that next level.”

Government Often Employs One-Size-Fits-All Solutions to Problems: Many policymakers fear “Balkanizing” the federal workforce by creating and applying rules that vary from occupation to occupation or agency to agency. One roundtable participant said: “When we see bad activity, we take a sledgehammer to it. We think we have to correct it for everyone instead of pinpointing where we need to fix it.”

Federal Human Resources Offices May Lack Skills Needed to Support Hiring in a Highly Competitive Job Market: Even where the government has programs such as recruiting and retention incentives designed to attract and retain in-demand skills, Roundtable participants had difficulty getting HR to support their use. One participant said: “There is a huge fear for using any of those special incentives for attracting people.”

The logical partners for mission leaders to solve these problems, agency HR departments, generally are poorly equipped to do so. They are not accustomed to working with CIOs and other lines of business in a close and outcome-oriented partnership. This puts the practical list of suggestions to leverage existing flexibilities out of reach for most agency teams.

One roundtable participant said, “We have a lot of people in federal HR who are amateurs.” Another said they were too risk averse, while another complained that any variation in the hiring routine required a debate with HR. One participant noted that while “DOD and DHS received a blank check from Congress very few people know how to set up a new HR system.”

The result is that even the granting of broad hiring authorities may not yield quick results. The lack of data-driven HR programs also was highlighted as a big weakness. As one participant said, “We don’t talk about why people come to work and how to attract the people we want to attract, as well as those people who never consider working for the government.” The problems are exacerbated by the growing difficulty HR offices have in finding skilled people for their own teams.

Security clearance process is too complex and time-consuming: Tech jobs often require the highest levels of security clearance, which can require many months of investigation to complete. One participant lamented, “By the time we got through the security process, we couldn’t get anyone in the program.”

Some CIOs and chief human capital officers believe the problems are getting worse. Participants said senior leaders are increasingly tasked with making IT work without the right talent, whether it is government workers or outside contractors. They find themselves unable to attract IT talent, and unable to intelligently outsource their requirements because they’re unable to represent adequately the government’s interest and provide necessary oversight and review.

In short, good people believe they are at the mercy of a system that doesn’t work. But none of these problems are insurmountable.

Read part two here.