GAO: Agencies Need to Plan Better, Pay More and Deal with Harassment and Diversity Issues Among Tech Workforce


A new report and testimony from the Government Accountability Office re-ups past work to identify problems hiring and retaining a skilled federal science and technology workforce.

The federal government is not very good at hiring top science and technology candidates or keeping them employed at agencies. The Government Accountability Office officials say they know why and have been telling agencies how to fix it for years.

Federal agencies across government have a critical need to hire and retain people with strong technology and scientific research skills. But data and practical experience have shown the government is not well-positioned to fill those workforce gaps.

The latest GAO report—part of testimony before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology—highlights ongoing issues with the federal science and technology workforce, what agencies have been doing and what work still needs to be done.

“GAO has had long-standing concerns about federal agencies’ strategic human capital management, an issue highlighted in GAO’s High Risk Series since 2001,” Candice Wright, acting director of GAO’s Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics Office, wrote in the report.

The oversight agency boiled all those issues into three focus areas: improving workforce planning, taking advantage of special pay and hiring authorities, and addressing sexual harassment and systemic issues with diversity and inclusion.

“Federal agencies face the difficult task of staying apace of advances in science and technology while competing for talent with the private sector, universities, and nonprofit research centers,” the report states. “Concerted efforts are needed to identify skill and competency gaps at agencies prior to choosing the right strategies for filling those gaps. Agencies also need to ensure that they build an inclusive and supportive workplace that attracts and retains talent.”

Strategic Workforce Planning to Identify Gaps and Future Needs

While there are a number of issues that make hiring and retaining technical talent difficult for federal agencies, attempting to address those issues is pointless if the agency doesn’t know what technical talent it needs.

The report outlines specific human capital planning failures at several agencies but notes the issues are widespread across government.

In October 2019, “GAO found that most of the 24 federal agencies had not fully implemented five of the eight key workforce activities that GAO identified because of reasons such as competing priorities and limited resources,” the report states. “Thirteen agencies agreed with the recommendation, while the other five expressed a range of views; however, while some agencies have made progress, none have fully implemented the recommendation.”

An earlier report in 2019 also found 22 of 24 agencies had miscategorized “designated positions as not performing IT, cybersecurity, or cyber-related functions when they did most likely perform these functions.”

Improving Federal Pay and Hiring

For in-demand fields like science and technology—as well as cybersecurity and other related skills—the government’s rigid pay scale can make it difficult to attract leading candidates.

Over the years, Congress has introduced special pay and hiring authorities for critical and highly technical positions, though the effectiveness of these authorities is unknown.

“Generally, federal agencies have seven broadly available governmentwide special payment authorities to help address recruitment and retention challenges,” according to GAO.

Years ago, GAO auditors looked into the pay authorities and sought data from the Office of Personnel Management, which maintained “data on use of these authorities but had not analyzed how much the authorities help improve recruitment and retention.”

Since that time, GAO has made six recommendations for OPM to make better use of this data, two of which have been implemented.

Addressing Factors that Affect the Federal Work Environment

While pay is a major issue, federal agencies can also have trouble retaining employees due to the constraints of government work.

“These challenges include perceptions that the federal work is too bureaucratic, lacks innovation and involves maintaining the status quo, is less prestigious than the private sector, and makes it difficult to see the immediate effect of their work,” GAO states. The report also cites systemic issues prevalent in the science and technology fields, including sexual harassment and lack of diversity.

The GAO report cites specific examples at the Smithsonian Institute, National Institutes of Health, Defense Department, Energy Department and Office of Science and Technology Policy.

While not unique to federal agencies, toxic work environments and sexual harassment often push people to leave their jobs, and the science and technology fields are notoriously difficult for women.

“One study we reported on found that 63% of women working in science, engineering, and technology—historically male-dominated fields—said they experienced sexual harassment,” GAO states, citing a report in the Harvard Business Review.

Similarly, lack of minority representation in hiring and in grantees receiving federal funding for scientific research have been identified throughout the federal community.

More specific to government work, GAO resurfaced a 2015 report delving into restrictions on interacting with peers in the scientific community.

“Agency officials told GAO that scientists and engineers establish their professional reputations by presenting research at conferences to have their work published and, without such opportunities, researchers may find federal employment less desirable,” the new report states.

The report also cites perceptions of scientific integrity issues, particularly during the previous administration. The incoming Biden administration issued a presidential memo in January seeking to strengthen scientific integrity across the federal government and establishing new layers of bureaucracy to monitor agency progress.

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