GAO: Cultivating a Data-Centric Culture Can Help Recruit, Retain a Digitally-Savvy Workforce


A survey chronicles the steps federal agencies need to take to improve their workforce to be equipped for technological modernization.

The growth and development of tech talent within the public sector is stagnating, requiring advanced training and support for government employees to stay competitive in an increasingly digital environment, according to a new study.

Released on Nov. 19 by the Government Accountability Office, a survey featuring leaders from tech sectors within government, academic, and nonprofit organizations suggests that government modernization efforts are primarily hindered by a lack of talent with expertise in burgeoning fields like artificial intelligence, robotic automation, and cybersecurity.

GAO officials identified that federal agencies in particular have faced challenges in hiring and retaining digitally savvy staff due to a limited pipeline of qualified candidates and a slower hiring process. 

The report was commissioned by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Personnel within the Committee on Armed Services.

“The U.S. government has a need for digital expertise, and federal agencies have faced challenges in hiring, managing, and retaining staff with digital skills,” the report summary said.

From the pool of industry experts sampled as part of the study, report authors were able to distill the feedback into three steps that are critical to modernizing the tech branches of federal agencies. These include providing resources for a digital workforce, fostering an “academy” for a better pipeline of talent, and creating a culture of retention for digitally-savvy new hires. 

The panel of respondents said that some of the procedures a digital workforce could  accomplish include updating outdated legacy systems, updating cybersecurity protocols and managing related risks, and applying new AI technologies to improve existing business processes.

In order to achieve this, however, there has to be a sufficient workforce with the appropriate technical training. 

To hire and retain this talent, the panelists noted that using contractors, training existing civil employees to continue technical work, and implementing a range of fellowships and internships are some of the ways to maintain a workforce for more advanced technical implementation.

The report specifically notes that creating a digital service academy for developing a pipeline of qualified digital service workers would keep the hiring process moving. Some of the recommended skills for these workers include a combination of understanding bureaucratic processes and digital innovation.

Finally, industry leaders recommend that cultivating an agency-wide culture of technological innovation is critical for retaining employees. This includes establishing support networks between agencies and departments, and developing more professional growth opportunities in a data-centric environment. 

“Branding the federal government as an employer that drives change and promotes freedom to think creatively could attract a stronger talent pool,” the report concludes.  

The need to modernize government agency procedures has long been on the federal agenda, but remote work brought by the pandemic emphasized the need for more advanced innovations. 

Taka Ariga, the chief data scientist and director of the GAO’s Innovation Lab, said that training existing staff on technological topics is just as important as hiring new specialists. 

“The concept of a digital service academy can be one potential long-term path,” Ariga told Nextgov. “At the same time, agencies can also develop specific digital curriculums to retool existing staff. GAO’s timely report highlights needs to not only address the talent pipeline challenges but also how the cadre of digital workforce can thrive through strengthening of institutional support mechanisms.”