Uncle Sam wants you to help train government HR to hire tech talent

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Several agencies are hosting a challenge with prize money meant to spur innovation in how the government hires techies.

The Office of Personnel Management, U.S. Digital Service and Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Performance and Personnel Management want ideas on how to train government HR professionals into experts in recruiting and hiring tech talent.

The offices are hosting a prize challenge on the General Services Administration’s Challenge.gov to source ideas and are offering up to $880,000 in cash prizes. The winner will be charged with developing and leading a pilot program to test the feasibility of their training for HR feds.

“Agencies across the federal government continue to experience difficulties in hiring people with the technical skills to modernize and manage the technology tools necessary to implement programs and fulfill their mission,” the Challenge.gov page notes.

Some specific problems: “The time to hire qualified technical experts measures in months rather than weeks, which causes agencies to lose candidates to faster-moving organizations; most agencies fail to assess subject-matter expertise at the outset, impacting the caliber of applicants on hiring short lists; and agency staff are unable to leverage modern sourcing and recruiting methods, affecting the diversity and effectiveness of their hiring pools.”

Agency human capital leaders, meanwhile, also reported to OPM last year that “the greatest challenge to innovation is limited financial and/or human resources, which restrict agencies’ capacity to explore opportunities and scale innovations,” the recently released Human Capital Reviews for fiscal 2023 state.

OPM, USDS and OMB say that the new challenge is meant to fill in gaps in how agencies evaluate, hire and onboard tech talent with a specialized training and development program for HR and human capital professionals, as well as hiring managers.

“We see just record numbers of folks throwing their hats in the ring and applying to roles here at USDS and throughout government as we see more and more technology roles open, so we want to be sure we are ready to place those talented folks,” Cori Zarek, deputy administrator at USDS, told Nextgov/FCW

The hope is that the training program would help those targeting tech talent to use hiring authorities and flexibilities like direct hire to their advantage, understand modern tech roles and how they line up with government HR requirements and more.

The program is being modeled after successes seen with the Digital IT Acquisition Professional Training Program, or DITAP, said Zarek.

Over 850 acquisition feds across over 50 agencies have gone through DITAP since 2016, according to USDS. The program also started as a prize competition, as USDS and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy sought ways to teach federal buyers how to acquire technology.

In terms of hiring techies, OPM is already flexing some of those special hiring authorities and flexibilities in hopes of helping agencies hire up on artificial intelligence talent. 

Those hosting the challenge want to be sure that “we can take advantage together of all of the opportunities and flexibilities that federal hiring does offer, which isn’t always top of mind for many folks who are part of the hiring process,” said Zarek.

Whether the federal government can both hire new talent and train its existing workforce on AI will be critical to successfully implementing a recent AI executive order, as well as the government’s ability to capitalize on AI in its own operations. 

“None of this happens without government talent,” Ben Buchanan, a special advisor on AI at the White House, said of the AI executive order during an Aspen Institute event on Tuesday.

“We have been overwhelmed by the number of applications to jobs,” he said. “Now we’ve got a long way to go in actually bringing those people in, especially when it comes to appropriations.”

Anyone interested in competing in OPM, USDS and OMB’s challenge will have to submit a concept paper for the first phase of the competition. Those who submit the top papers will move on to the next phase, which involves submitting a detailed program design, before the final winner will be tasked with a pilot program of about 30 students.