Tackling workforce woes

Senate committee report calls agency personnel problems 'recipe for disaster'

Agencies face an emerging workforce crisis thanks in part to downsizing, pending retirements, an outmoded hiring process and a lack of skilled workers, according to a Senate report.

"These personnel problems add up to a recipe for disaster," said the report, which Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) released June 5 on behalf of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. The report details the crisis to the Bush administration for the first time.

The two-volume report describes the top management challenges facing agencies today: the increasing lack of skilled and experienced federal employees; the growing number of failing information technology systems and information security vulnerabilities; agencies' inability to account for where their funding is going; and the number of efforts covered by duplicative programs at multiple agencies.

"Sub-par workforces," the report said, make other management problems worse.

Thompson, now the ranking member on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, is not the first to point out the management challenge created by an aging and shrinking federal workforce. Human capital management made the General Accounting Office's high-risk list for the first time this year as an area vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement. But Thompson, who handed his report directly to Mitchell Daniels Jr., director of the Office of Management and Budget, is the first person to bring the issue to the Bush administration's attention. And in his view, past efforts to improve the federal workforce have not had the intended effect.

For instance, downsizing the federal workforce in the 1990s to reduce big government has resulted in workers who are doing jobs for which they are often unprepared. "The jobs don't fit the people that we have anymore," Thompson said.

This is especially true because of the role that IT plays in government. Agencies need people who can understand how the technology fits into the business, but not just in the CIO's office. The acquisition workforce, one of the most deeply cut in the downsizing efforts, is a major factor in the success of IT programs.

"We contract an awful lot of this stuff out...but we don't have the people to make the deals and to oversee it," Thompson said.

In addition, up to half of the federal workforce could retire in the next five years, and the government continues to compete with industry to bring in new people and keep skilled employees. Thompson and White House officials agree on the first thing that must be done to get a handle on the problem. "The key is to understand where we are," Daniels said. Most agencies simply don't know what personnel resources they have or what they need, he said.

To this end, OMB last month asked agencies for workforce analysis and restructuring plans to help the White House create a more "citizen-centric" government. Agencies have until June 29 to provide "summary information" on the analyses.

More important than anything else, however, is continued attention from the White House, and a commitment to change from leaders at every agency, Thompson said.

To achieve long-term success, this cannot be just another political effort that gets time and resources for a short period and then is pushed to the background, he said. Constant oversight is essential to ensure that what starts with good intentions does not cause other problems, the way the workforce reduction effort did.

"It takes some foresight [and] thought to what's ahead," Thompson said.


Stretched too far

Some of the agency-specific workforce management problems highlighted in the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee report include:

Defense Department — On the civilian side, the lack of sufficiently skilled and experienced staff, following downsizing, threatens contracting and logistics activities.

Education Department — The department's staff members may lack the knowledge and skills to manage their information technology operations.

Transportation Department — Federal Aviation Administration air traffic control modernization is fraught with cost, schedule and performance problems partly because of an organizational "culture" and management structures that impair the acquisition process. Energy Department — Employees lack the contract management skills needed to oversee large projects.

General Services Administration — Downsizing, restructuring, major program streamlining and personnel reductions have forced out many experienced and knowledgeable staff members.


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