Government Matters interview (source: https://govmatters.tv/cio-councils-recommendations-for-the-it-workforce/)

Revitalizing the Federal IT Workforce

Last week, I spoke with Francis Rose of Government Matters, about the new report by the Federal CIO Council about the Federal IT Workforce.

I think the Federal CIOs nailed it. And unlike most government reports, it’s quite brief.

The report outlines the challenge of the graying IT workforce, which I’ve also discussed previously on Government Matters. Over 2/3rds of the IT workforce is over 40 years old. In the VA, for example, roughly 1% of the tech workforce is under 30 years old. And the problem has been getting worse, over the past decade, under both Administrations.

The problem isn’t just the IT workforce, the GS 2210 series. As the report notes, there are other federal job classifications that should be included when thinking about the tech workforce, such as computer operations, computer engineering, and computer science job classifications too.

Moreover, as the report highlights, technology knowledge and skills are also important in other functions of government, especially in 1) acquisitions and 2) project management.

After all, government acquires and manages contractors to build, integrate, and maintain a lot of IT systems in government. If we don’t have technologists involved in either of those fields, government will be at a massive disadvantage. As I’ve testified in Congress, how the government buys, builds, and evolves software on an ongoing basis is critical to whether the government can accomplish its various missions.

The Federal CIO IT workforce report offers 10 recommendations to fix the problems, according to NextGov:

  • Develop a new governmentwide special IT pay system.
  • Move to a competency-based classification model for all IT positions.
  • Create interdisciplinary procurement teams.
  • Redesign the IT recruiting and hiring process to attract highly qualified and diverse individuals.
  • Make federal IT career paths more attractive to the workforce of the future.
  • Improve recognition for the best performers and innovators in federal IT.
  • Compare the effectiveness of IT workforce programs with the private sector.
  • Expand existing pilot programs to improve recruiting efforts.
  • Increase adoption and long-term impact of intragovernmental augmentation offerings.
  • Employ more technical subject matter experts who are trained as project managers.”

For the first recommendation, I’m all for fixing the pay to better reflect the market, especially at the entry and executive levels, where there is the most disparity. GS-7, the grade that bachelor’s degrees can get hired at, starts at $17.87 an hour or $35,740 per year — not competitive for top technology talent coming out of college. But I think agencies can do a lot to attract, recruit, and retain IT staff ahead of any potential pay scale reforms.

As an advisor to Coding It Forward, a non-profit partnering with federal agencies to creating data science, technology, and design internships, I know that the younger generation wants a chance to work in government. They are inspired to serve, but government doesn’t always make it easy for them.

A Digital Surge

As I told Francis on a past Government Matters segment, we should think big:

“Imagine a digital surge. Imagine if we were trying to recruit 10,000 technical people to government over the next 2 years. That would include thinking about how we reform hiring and hire faster, how do we have modern and engaging environments for those people, and have professional development and upskilling.”

Taking a play out of my Harvard class where I teach user-centered design, I’d encourage the government to actually study how students and others at the beginning of their careers experience the government hiring process — including interviewing promising candidates who drop out. By understanding those experiences, government will be in a better situation to reform the process.

But from my own experiences and observations, and from talking with tech leaders in government, I’d argue government will need to fundamentally figure out how to:

  • Hire quickly (i.e. under 60 days);
  • Make the mission accessible and exciting;
  • Show candidates that they can have a chance to make a real impact on that mission;
  • Ensure employees have a modern physical work environment;
  • Show candidates that government cares about attracting, retaining, and promoting a diverse workforce;
  • Give workers modern computers and modern technology tools;
  • Offer continuous professional development and training;
  • Show employees that they will have opportunities to advance rapidly based on merit;
  • Show employees that they can be successful in their career after leaving government;
  • Create a vibrant alumni network; and
  • Use titles and develop roles that more closely correspond with private sector titles.

The U.S. Digital Service (USDS) has been piloting hiring reforms with OPM and federal civilian agencies; Congress should get a briefing on those reforms and explore how they might be applicable across the federal workforce. And as the CIO report outlines, federal agencies ought to re-examine their hiring and recruiting procedures, which includes using commercial hiring platforms and practices.

As I’ve testified in Congress, the government also needs to figure out how to hire people ahead of their security clearance. There used to be a time where college or early career talent was hired and tasked with unclassified work until their clearance was appropriately adjudicated. The government did a very good job of segmenting what work could be accomplished without clearance. Today’s work environment is much different. Individuals can only begin work once their final clearance is adjudicated. Most candidates will not wait jobless until the adjudication process is complete — especially because there is commercial demand for their skills. Bringing back opportunities to perform uncleared work in the interim provides the individual a chance to contribute meaningfully to the mission.

Retainment is another major issue in the federal workforce; a recent GAO report found that 60% of new federal hires left their jobs within two years. I’d argue that we want healthy entry and exit into the federal IT workforce (the median is almost 9 years, compared to 3 years in industry, in the CIO report), and strong “people flow” in and out of government will keep technology skills fresh.

Francis asked me if I thought this CIO report was a typical DC report that would sit on a shelf. I don’t think so. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I think there is a bipartisan consensus that we need to fix the issues, and we can start now on structural reforms, in advance of either a second term or a new Presidency.

Meanwhile, there is important work being done. Check out the Air Force Digital University to upskill airmen and democratize the opportunity to learn tech skills across the Air Force. As this latest report shows, CIOs in the federal government recognize the problem, and want to fix it.

See the news about the new Federal IT Workforce report:

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