Fed retirements pose a challenge

GAO asks agencies to improve teamwork efforts and use of metrics.

Selected Agencies Have Opportunities to Enhance Existing Succession Planning and Management Efforts

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Congressional auditors say some federal agencies are not doing enough to prepare for a wave of retirements. Some workforce experts say that the succession problem cannot be solved without spending more on training and hiring people from outside the federal government.

In a recent study, Government Accountability Office auditors reviewed four agencies' efforts to prepare future federal leaders. Auditors found that the Census Bureau, Labor Department, Environmental Protection Agency and Veterans Health Administration have top leaders committed to dealing with the succession problem, according to the report released in June.

Those agencies have started analyzing their future workforce needs in light of strategic changes in their missions and the information technology skills they will need to carry out new plans.

But GAO's auditors concluded that no agency is doing enough to reduce costs by coordinating their succession efforts with other agencies. "Combining duplicate curricula and sharing best practices would reduce spending in today's tight fiscal environment," said Lisa Shames, an assistant director at GAO who contributed to the report.

The auditors also faulted the agencies for not doing more to measure the results of their succession-planning efforts.

The GAO report shows that congressional auditors are most concerned about the Census Bureau's civil service workforce, especially whether it can handle the challenging IT demands of the 2010 Decennial Census.

At the bureau, line managers are responsible for filling vacant positions, which leaves senior officials unaware of skill gaps, according to the GAO report. "Without monitoring the readiness of its mission-critical workers more closely and at a higher level than line managers, the bureau may not know overall if it is acquiring the skills it needs to be prepared to conduct the 2010 Decennial Census," the report states.

During the 2000 Census, the bureau spent money on more contractors than necessary because it did not have enough employees trained in contracting and program management, according to GAO. Census officials responded to GAO's concerns by defending their succession practices as sufficient to meet the bureau's obligations.

GAO's review, conducted between June 2004 and April , recognized the VHA for creating a special subcommittee and high-level positions dedicated to succession planning.

The report also highlights Labor's successful two-year fellowship program for entry- and mid-level employees with master of business administration degrees. The program has enabled the department to place or promote employees with IT, business and project management skills. Labor officials said they retained 89 percent of the first class of MBA fellows at the end of the two-year program, which started in 2002.

Results from an IT workforce survey that the federal CIO Council and Office of Personnel Management published in March show that the greatest loss of federal IT employees in the next three years most likely will be among project managers. The GAO report states that almost one-third of federal IT employees who are members of the Senior Executive Service, which includes the highest-ranking federal employees, expect to retire in the next three years.

GAO's report on succession planning and management contained little that was surprising, said Patricia Pointer, the Treasury Department's acting deputy assistant secretary for human resources and chief human capital officer. Pointer said much of the report covers activities that Treasury is doing or plans to do. But she said collaboration within and among agencies on career development programs could be improved. "We can always and do need to do more," she added.

Some nonprofit and industry experts say that much more should be done to develop future federal leaders. Sara DeCarlo, vice chairwoman of the Industry Advisory Council's Human Capital Special Interest Group, said training and development programs have always been easy targets when the government tries to cut spending. DeCarlo, vice president of federal market sales at Ninth House, which offers employee training programs, said that if more agencies measured the impact of training, "they would start to see how the investment in the workforce is reaping results."

Another workforce expert, Fred Thompson, vice president of management and technology at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Council for Excellence in Government, said federal officials should avoid choosing one or two favorites for successors.

"It makes sense to build a pool of qualified people," Thompson said. He also advises agencies to look across government and industry for the best leaders. "When you look only in-house, you are not bringing in fresh ideas and fresh skills and new approaches," he said.

Federal officials generally are not focused on succession planning, Thompson said, who in his government career led efforts to improve Treasury's IT workforce. Now, he said, "not enough energy, time and money [is] spent on developing people."

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