What the next administration needs to do about the workforce

Shutterstock image (by solarseven): digital connection with people. 

The next administration will face the challenge of not only making thousands of political appointments, but also taking steps to attract, train and retain the rank and file of the federal workforce.

Getting political appointees in rapidly and leveraging -- and ultimately reforming -- the federal hiring process to bring in younger workers topped a list of recommendations offered at an Oct. 6 ACT-IAC event on the presidential transition.

The "bottom line," said National Academy of Public Administration Fellow Jeffrey Neal, is that no matter how much technology government wants to deploy, it needs talented people to accomplish its many missions.

Neal said the next president should "begin dialogue on comprehensive civil service reform" that would reduce the "ridiculous" number of job classifications, better engage employees and hold managers accountable for organizational performance.

"A lot of government failures can be traced to failure to attract the right people," said Neal, who has led human resources at the Defense Logistics Agency and the Departments of Homeland Security and Commerce.

"If the president has the right people in place very early on, he or she would have a very low likelihood of having their primary objectives fall through," Neal said.

Neal also wants to modernize the hiring process and attract younger workers. He pointed to the dwindling population of government employees under 30 years old.

"We have either poor or non-existent workforce planning," Neal said. "In 2009, there were 234,000 people under 30 in the federal government. Now, there are 162,000, and the number is getting smaller."

Neal noted that this problem is especially pronounced in IT occupations, where employees under age 30 constitute just 3.4 percent of workers. "Technology initiatives in particular have significant talent management issues and need a good talent management strategy," he said, "in part because of the demand for tech workers."

Additionally, Neal argued that "it should be easier to move in and out of government, but we make it very difficult" for talented specialists to return to government from the private sector.

While meaningful reform to the federal hiring process is a long-term goal, Neal said there are ways to leverage existing law to allay workforce challenge in the meantime.

He suggested exercising existing authorities, such as critical position pay, to fill mission-critical positions quickly. "There is an authority that OPM has to would allow them to designate around 800 jobs as having critical pay, which means they can go up to the Vice-President's pay" of over $230,000 to attract talent to the public sector, he said.

Neal also suggested that the administration follow in the steps of Google and other private sector companies and use data to drive human capital policies and decisions.

"Right now the government doesn't do that," he said. "That's something [the next administration] could start doing on day one. They don't have to wait for some law" to be passed.

Neal also called for a "re-imagined" senior executive service that would increase SES accountability and possibly link executive pay to agency outcomes.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.


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