Federal IT job overhaul overdue

At last, the Office of Personnel Management appears ready to tackle the government's perennially difficult and growing information technology worker shortage. It could not come a moment too soon.

OPM sources say they plan this summer to revamp the way the government structures its IT work force to more closely resemble the private sector - for example, by creating specific IT job titles along with matching salaries.

In addition, the Treasury Department recently concluded an exhaustive study of its IT work force that confirmed what most agencies had suspected: The government's traditional method of hiring, training and paying its employees is out of step with the commercial market, making it difficult to maintain adequate staffing. Others say other agencies are in similar straits.

Treasury's report, calling the situation a "crisis," calls for the administration to address this problem, and the word is it will.

The stakes here are enormous. Federal agencies are just beginning to realize the full potential of using IT to improve the way they conduct their day-to-day operations and to create new venues for delivering services to the public.

The ability to create and sustain "e-government" projects will erode if agencies cannot attract enough employees who understand the technology, its applications and, in the case of security, its weaknesses.

OPM must give agencies the ability to create jobs and set salaries that will be more of a draw than the plain-vanilla "computer specialist" positions they currently use as bait in the IT talent pool. Agencies also need the flexibility to reward employees for outstanding performance as a way to encourage exceptional work and retain employees.

No one expects the government to be able to compete with the private sector in offering big salaries for IT workers. The government may try to run more like a business, but it will never have the resources to pay the exorbitant salaries and fringe benefits available in the private sector.

But OPM should do everything within its power to make sure that working for the government remains at least an economically viable choice and that the government is an employer of choice. That job continues to get tougher as the demand for talent outpaces the available supply. The time to act is now.

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