Are agencies doing all they can to attract talent?

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Agencies may be underutilizing creative payment structures and incentives that could help them attract and retain employees.

In a report released Dec. 14, the Government Accountability Office reviewed the uses of seven special pay authorities used by the 26 Chief Human Capital Officer agencies. The report was launched at the request of former House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, now a Fox News analyst, and current Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

Government recruiters are allowed to take advantage of special pay rates for less-desired geographic areas, recruitment incentives, relocation incentives, retention incentives, qualifications-based incentives, student loan repayments and critical position pay.

Auditors reported that in fiscal year 2016, at least one of these pay authorities were barely used -- for fewer than six percent of 2 million civilian employees.

"GAO's report confirms that special pay authorities are an important way to recruit and keep the best of the best in our government," Cummings said in a statement. "Gaps in mission-critical skills continue to be a big challenge for federal agencies -- not because they don’t have the authorities they need, but because they don’t have enough resources to fully utilize them."

Agencies cited special rates and recruitment incentives as the most commonly used authorities -- used for about 74,000 and 13,000 employees each year, respectively. The least common authority was critical position pay -- used for "as few as seven employees" in each of fiscal years 2014 and 2015, and limited to "a few senior positions," according to the report.

Agencies told GAO these compensation incentives had positive impacts in attracting higher quality applicants and improving retention, and that manager training would likely make their uses more effective. However, to use these authorities more often, agencies say they need more funding.

Based on agency feedback, auditors found that the far and away most frequently cited obstacle to increased use of pay authorities was insufficient resources. Burdensome documentation and a complex approval process were also cited by agencies as a common challenge.

Auditors pegged agencies' spending on recruiting, relocation and retention incentives and student loan repayment around $805 million across fiscal years 2014 and 2016. Roughly 40 percent of that figure was spent on retention.

STEM and cybersecurity occupations were the most-commonly targeted skills gaps agencies used these authorities to fill.

While agencies generally reported that the use of these authorities had a positive impact on recruitment and retention, most did not document assessments of their effectiveness.

Auditors also reported the Office of Personnel Management does not track their use government, and cannot not analyze the effectiveness of the authorities. As a result, OPM may be missing opportunities to promote their strategic use.

GAO recommended the director of OPM work with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council to track government-wide data to analyze how effective the special pay authorities are and determine if any changes may be needed to increase their effectiveness, as well as to provide agencies with guidance on best practices or frequently asked questions,

GAO also recommended OPM and the CHCO Council to establish procedures to assess and periodically review special pay requests that require OPM approval to make them less complex.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter


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