Census falls short on workforce management planning

The Census Bureau risks facing serious skills gaps in its IT workforce unless officials take action to overhaul the agency’s human capital practices, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

In response to a congressional request to review Census Bureau’s policies and procedures related to IT investment management, system development, and human capital management, GAO officials conducted a performance audit from February 2012 through September 2012.

The findings, released Sept. 18, revealed the bureau has work to do with implementing its IT human capital practices. For example, the bureau lacks a wide-ranging IT workforce plan, which leaves directorates responsible for their own IT workforce planning. The bureau also has failed to identify gaps in mission-critical IT occupations, skills and competencies, or created strategies to address gaps.

Such fragmented approaches to workforce planning make it impossible for the bureau to truly develop a comprehensive strategy for acquiring the IT talent it needs, said Rose Mueller-Hanson, manager of leadership and organizational development consulting for PDRI.  The lack of a consistent approach across the entire organization “will inevitably lead to duplication of some skills and gaps in others.”

“There is no opportunity to share resources across organizational boundaries and indeed no awareness across directorates of what resources might be available,” Mueller-Hanson said. “This approach is not only more expensive than a coordinated approach; it also reduces effectiveness.”

In 2011, the bureau identified mission-critical IT occupations and began evaluating mission-critical competencies. However, an agencywide IT competency assessment is not planned until fall of 2012, the report stated.

Without plans to conduct an IT skills inventory and gap analysis, the bureau could see a deficiency of skilled IT talent to manage IT investments needed for the 2020 Decennial Census, David Powner, GAO’s director of IT management issues, wrote in the GAO audit report.

A gap analysis accomplishes three goals, Mueller-Hanson said. First, it defines the competencies needed by the IT workforce to meet mission requirements. Second, it evaluates the current level of competencies among personnel. And finally, it highlights critical gaps between the level of competencies needed and the competencies currently available.

“Armed with this information, the bureau can then decide how to address these gaps – either through hiring people with needed skills or through training,” Mueller-Hanson said. “Without this critical information, the bureau cannot make informed decisions about how to allocate scarce training dollars or where to focus its hiring and recruitment efforts. This analysis is not a ‘nice to do’ activity; it’s imperative for making sound business decisions.”

Julie Anderson, chief operating officer and managing director at Civitas Group, said that if the bureau implements its new approach to strategic human capital, heeding GAO's recommendations will bolster its efforts to recruit and retain IT professionals. Additionally, she said, the bureau's human resources division can take further actions to design and adopt an effective method of developing human capital.

“The division has a valuable opportunity to coordinate and standardize human capital development practices across the enterprise to support mission-critical functions in a way that enables higher performance among personnel and produces optimal organizational results,” Anderson said. 

In offering advice for the human resources division, Anderson suggested officials develop strategic guidance for the entire bureau. Another step entails creating standard templates for human capital development inventories, assessments and plans, as well as conducting training sessions for IT managers to teach them how to execute the new strategic approach among their teams.

“Finally, the division can create a performance management capability, including measures and metrics, to produce meaningful data with which to make management decisions about future investments in human capital development across the entire organization,” Anderson said.

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