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Strategic Human Capital Management

This information appears as published in the 2013 High Risk Report.

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Addressing complex challenges such as disaster response, national and homeland security, and economic stability requires a high-quality federal workforce able to work seamlessly with other agencies, levels of government, and across sectors. However, current budget and long-term fiscal pressures, coupled with a potential wave of employee retirements that could produce gaps in leadership and institutional knowledge, threaten the government’s capacity to effectively address these and many other evolving, national issues. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), individual agencies, and Congress have all taken important steps over the last few years that will better position the government to close current and emerging critical skills gaps that are undermining agencies’ abilities to meet their vital missions. Although progress has been made, the area remains high risk because more work is needed in implementing specific corrective strategies for addressing critical skills gaps and evaluating their results. GAO added this area to its High Risk List in 2001.

In February 2011, GAO reported that closing on-going and emerging critical skills gaps would require agencies to continue to address their specific human capital needs, as well as work with OPM and through the Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCO) Council to address critical skills gaps that cut across several agencies. In particular, actions are needed in three broad areas:

  • Planning. Identifying the causes of and solutions for skills gaps and steps to implement those solutions.
  • Implementation. Defining and implementing corrective actions to narrow skills gaps through talent management and other strategies.
  • Measurement and evaluation. Assessing the effects and evaluating the performance of initiatives to close skills gaps.

Since then, OPM, individual agencies, and Congress have continued to make progress on this issue and have demonstrated top-level leadership involvement. For example, in September 2011, OPM and the CHCO Council—as part of ongoing discussions between OPM, the Office of Management and Budget, and GAO on the steps needed to address the federal government’s human capital challenges—established the Chief Human Capital Officers Council Working Group (Working Group) to identify and mitigate critical skills gaps. Underscoring the top leadership commitment to this task, the Working Group is led by OPM and the Department of Defense (DOD); agencies’ Chief Human Capital Officers and their representatives were involved in forming the Working Group and are participating in its deliberations. Further, the Working Group’s efforts were designated a cross-agency priority goal within the administration’s fiscal year 2013 federal budget.

Although much remains to be done, using a multi-faceted approach, including a literature review and an analysis of various staffing gap indicators, the Working Group has thus far identified the following government-wide mission-critical occupations:

  • Information technology management/cybersecurity
  • Auditor
  • Human resources specialist
  • Contract specialist
  • Economist
  • Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics occupational groups

The Working Group also identified seven mission critical competencies, including data analysis, strategic thinking, influencing and negotiating, and problem solving, as well as three grants management competencies. At the same time, individual agencies identified agency-specific mission critical occupations, such as nurses at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Working Group plans to complete its efforts by March 2013 by which time it intends to implement the strategies to address the skills gaps, monitor and report progress of those strategies, and write a closeout report on its efforts.

OPM and the CHCOs will need to continue their efforts to identify and address critical skills gaps on an ongoing basis once the Working Group completes its initial efforts. In January 2013, OPM reported that the director of OPM—as leader of the cross-agency priority goal to close critical skills gaps—had identified key federal officials from each of the six government-wide mission critical occupations to serve as “sub-goal leaders.” OPM noted that in working with their occupational communities, the sub-goal leaders have selected specific strategies to decrease skills gaps in the occupations they represent. OPM also noted that the Director meets quarterly with these officials to monitor their progress.

Additional steps OPM and the CHCOs could take include creating a readily-accessible mechanism to assemble and disseminate lessons learned and leading practices, and developing collaborative actions such as shared training to help address skills gaps affecting multiple agencies. These steps, among others, could further help OPM and agencies sustain and improve their efforts to identify and address current and evolving critical skills gaps while simultaneously avoiding any duplication of effort.

In addition to the Working Group, OPM has taken steps to improve the federal hiring process, with the aim of making it easier for people to apply for a federal job and strengthen the ability of agencies to compete with the private sector for filling entry-level positions. One such effort is the Pathways Program, which created two new conduits into federal service and modified an existing program. The final rule implementing Pathways took effect in July 2012.

Congress continued its oversight as well. For example, in September 2012, the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia held a hearing on the state of the federal workforce in which representatives from OPM, GAO, federal labor unions, and other stakeholders testified on the progress being made in modernizing the government’s human capital policies and procedures. This hearing, along with research requests made to GAO and other initiatives, helped policymakers oversee and inform decision-making on the efforts of OPM and individual agencies to acquire, develop, and retain employees with the skills needed to carry out the government’s vital work.

Strategic human capital planning that is integrated with broader organizational strategic planning is essential for ensuring that agencies have the talent, skill, and experience mix they need to cost-effectively execute their mission and program goals. Such planning is especially important now because, as shown in figure 2, agencies are facing a wave of potential retirements. Government-wide, around 30 percent of federal employees on board at the end of fiscal year 2011 will become eligible to retire by 2016. At some agencies, however, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Small Business Administration, at least 40 percent of those on board at the end of fiscal year 2011 are already eligible or will become eligible to retire by 2016.

The government’s top leadership and management ranks also face potentially high levels of retirement. About 58 percent of senior executives and 45 percent of GS-15s who were on board at the end of fiscal year 2011 will be eligible to retire by 2016. Likewise, certain occupations also face the potential of large numbers of retirements. For example, 46 percent of air traffic controllers could be eligible to retire by 2016.

Figure 2: Agencies are Facing a Retirement Wave

Image Goes Here

Underscoring these broad demographic trends, GAO’s work has identified both government-wide and agency-specific skills gaps in several areas, including the following:

Cybersecurity. In a November 2011 report, GAO found that even as threats to federal information technology infrastructure and systems continue to grow in number and sophistication, federal agencies’ progress in implementing key workforce planning practices for cybersecurity personnel has been mixed. For example, five of the eight agencies GAO reviewed, including the largest, DOD, have established cybersecurity workforce plans or other agency-wide activities addressing cybersecurity workforce planning. However, all of the agencies GAO reviewed faced challenges determining the size of their cybersecurity workforce because of variations in how work is defined and the lack of an occupational series specific to cybersecurity. GAO recommended, among other actions, that OPM should finalize and issue guidance to agencies on how to track the use and effectiveness of incentives for cybersecurity and other hard-to-fill positions. OPM agreed with this recommendation and identified steps it is taking to address federal agencies’ use of incentives.

Acquisition management. Agencies such as DOD and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) need to address shortages of trained acquisition personnel to oversee and manage contracts that have become more expensive and increasingly complex. For example, in September 2012, GAO reported that 51 of the 71 DHS acquisition programs GAO surveyed reported workforce shortfalls in government personnel serving in program management, business functions, and engineering and technical positions. GAO found that the workforce shortfalls led to insufficient program planning, hindering the development of key acquisition documents intended to inform senior-level decision making, and that 29 of the 51 programs that identified workforce shortfalls had also experienced cost growth or schedule slips. In a 2008 report, GAO recommended DHS take several actions to better manage its acquisition workforce challenges, such as establishing a coordinated planning process across DHS component agencies and improving workforce data. DHS generally agreed with GAO’s recommendations and has taken steps to more effectively manage and strategically plan for its acquisition workforce, including establishing a strategic human capital planning initiative to improve coordination between the Chief Procurement Officer, DHS components, the Chief Human Capital Officer, and other stakeholders to develop a Fiscal Year 2013 Acquisition Workforce Strategic Human Capital Plan. DHS has begun collecting and tracking data on the department’s acquisition workforce but not yet on the department’s use of contractor acquisition support.

Department of Interior’s oversight of oil and gas activities. In its July 2012 report, GAO found that the Department of the Interior continues to face workforce planning challenges following a reorganization effort to improve its oversight of offshore oil and gas activities in the wake of the April 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In particular, GAO found that Interior has not developed a strategic workforce plan that outlines specific strategies to help it address the recruitment, retention, and training challenges to oversee offshore oil and gas activities, particularly for engineers and inspectors. Interior has also not specifically determined when it will develop such a plan. To address this, GAO recommended that the relevant components of Interior develop a strategic workforce plan that, among other actions, determines the critical skills and competencies that will be needed to achieve current and future programmatic results and to develop strategies to address critical skills gaps. Interior agreed with this recommendation, noting that its Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will pilot and evaluate a workforce planning tool to institutionalize workforce planning and guide the long-term strategic planning process. Similarly, Interior stated that its Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement will develop a comprehensive bureau-wide strategic human capital plan to address anticipated workforce changes and gaps in critical skills and competencies. The target dates for these efforts are the summer and fall of 2013, respectively.

DOD’s large, diverse civilian workforce. In March 2012, DOD included a list of 22 mission critical occupations in its most recent congressionally-mandated civilian strategic workforce plan. DOD first identified 17 of these occupations as mission critical in 2007 and an additional 5 in 2009. GAO’s September 2012 report found that DOD had reported conducting gap assessments for 8 of these 22 mission critical occupations it had identified as part of strategic workforce planning efforts for its civilian workforce of about 780,000 personnel. Examples of occupations where DOD did not report conducting gap analyses included budget analysis, information technology management, and logistics management. GAO noted that having a fully developed workforce plan, with completed gap assessments, would help DOD make informed decisions about its workforce and develop strategies to mitigate skill shortages and thus recommended that DOD complete competency gap analyses for its mission-critical occupations and report the results of these analyses. DOD partially concurred with this recommendation noting that competency gaps are to be assessed in the future using a tool that is expected to be available by fiscal year 2014. In January 2013, GAO reported that DOD’s Office of the Secretary of Defense and military services had been directed to freeze—or cap—their full-time equivalent civilian positions, but that it was unclear the extent to which DOD had taken into account department-wide priorities for critical skills and competencies when implementing the civilian cap. In that report, GAO recommended that to the extent possible, DOD use the results of its critical skills and competencies gap assessments to make informed decisions for changes to the workforce. DOD generally concurred with GAO’s recommendation noting that it is aggressively working towards fully meeting the congressionally mandated requirements of its Strategic Workforce Plan.

Aviation safety. As GAO noted in its September 2012 report, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is implementing its Safety Management Systems (SMS) initiative to shift to a data-driven, risk-based, safety oversight approach that is required for the FAA and several of its business lines, and will be required for the aviation industry. FAA officials have stated that implementing this system will require some skills that agency employees lack. However, FAA has not yet assessed the skills of its workforce to identify specific gaps in employee expertise. GAO recommended that to better leverage existing resources and to facilitate SMS implementation, FAA should conduct a workforce analysis to inventory existing employee skills and abilities and develop strategies for addressing any SMS-related gaps. The Department of Transportation agreed to consider the recommendations.

Over the last 2 years, executive agencies and Congress have continued their leadership and commitment to ensuring the government takes a more strategic and efficient approach to the recruitment, hiring, development, and retention of individuals with the skills needed to cost-effectively carry out the nation’s business. At the same time, GAO has recommended numerous actions agencies should take to address their specific human capital challenges, and has also made recommendations to OPM to address government-wide human capital issues.

Going forward, further progress will depend on the extent to which OPM and agencies sustain their planning, implementation, and monitoring efforts using a strategic approach that (1) involves top management, employees, and other stakeholders; (2) identifies the critical skills and competencies that will be needed to achieve current and future programmatic results; (3) develops strategies that are tailored to address skills gaps; (4) builds the internal capability needed to address administrative, training, and other requirements important to support workforce planning strategies; and (5) includes plans to monitor and evaluate progress toward closing skills gaps and meeting other human capital goals using a variety of appropriate metrics.

OPM and agencies need to implement refinements to the approaches the Working Group used to identify and address critical skills gaps in order to enhance their effectiveness in the future. These refinements can include:

  • identifying ways to document and assemble lessons learned, leading practices, and other useful information for addressing skill gaps into a readily-accessible clearinghouse or database so agencies can draw on one another’s experiences and avoid duplicating efforts;
  • examining the cost-effectiveness of delivering tools and shared services such as online training for workforce planning to address issues affecting multiple agencies;
  • reviewing the extent to which new capabilities are needed to give OPM and other agencies greater visibility over skills gaps government-wide to better identify which agencies may have surpluses of personnel in those positions and which agencies have gaps, as well as the adequacy of current mechanisms for facilitating the transfer of personnel from one agency to another to address those gaps as appropriate; and
  • determining whether existing workforce planning and other tools can be used to help streamline the processes developed by the Working Group.

OPM agreed that these were important areas for consideration.

Looking for our recommendations? Click on any report to find each associated recommendation and its current implementation status.

Acquisition Workforce:

DOT Lacks Data, Oversight, and Strategic Focus Needed to Address Significant Workforce Challenges
GAO-13-117:
Published: Jan 23, 2013. Publicly Released: Jan 23, 2013.

Human Capital:

Critical Skills and Competency Assessments Should Help Guide DOD Civilian Workforce Decisions
GAO-13-188:
Published: Jan 17, 2013. Publicly Released: Jan 17, 2013.

Human Capital:

DOD Needs Complete Assessments to Improve Future Civilian Strategic Workforce Plans
GAO-12-1014:
Published: Sep 27, 2012. Publicly Released: Sep 27, 2012.

Human Capital Management:

Homeland Security:

DHS Requires More Disciplined Investment Management to Help Meet Mission Needs
GAO-12-833:
Published: Sep 18, 2012. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 2012.

Oil and Gas Management:

Interior's Reorganization Complete, but Challenges Remain in Implementing New Requirements
GAO-12-423:
Published: Jul 30, 2012. Publicly Released: Aug 29, 2012.

Human Capital:

HHS and EPA Can Improve Practices Under Special Hiring Authorities
GAO-12-692:
Published: Jul 9, 2012. Publicly Released: Jul 12, 2012.

Disaster Assistance Workforce:

FEMA Could Enhance Human Capital Management and Training
GAO-12-538:
Published: May 25, 2012. Publicly Released: Jun 1, 2012.

Modernizing the Nuclear Security Enterprise:

Strategies and Challenges in Sustaining Critical Skills in Federal and Contractor Workforces
GAO-12-468:
Published: Apr 26, 2012. Publicly Released: Apr 26, 2012.

OPM Retirement Modernization:

Progress Has Been Hindered by Longstanding Information Technology Management Weaknesses
GAO-12-430T:
Published: Feb 1, 2012. Publicly Released: Feb 1, 2012.

Cybersecurity Human Capital:

Initiatives Need Better Planning and Coordination
GAO-12-8:
Published: Nov 29, 2011. Publicly Released: Nov 29, 2011.

Foreign Language Capabilities:

Department of Homeland Security:

A Strategic Approach Is Needed to Better Ensure the Acquisition Workforce Can Meet Mission Needs
GAO-09-30:
Published: Nov 19, 2008. Publicly Released: Nov 19, 2008.