Federal Workforce:

OPM and Agencies Need to Strengthen Efforts to Identify and Close Mission-Critical Skills Gaps

GAO-15-223: Published: Jan 30, 2015. Publicly Released: Jan 30, 2015.

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What GAO Found

Lessons learned from initial efforts to try to close skills gaps could strengthen future approaches. For example, the Chief Human Capital Officer (CHCO) Council Working Group (Working Group) identified skills gaps in six government-wide occupations, such as cybersecurity and auditors. Although this effort was an important step forward, GAO's work has identified skills gaps in nearly two dozen occupations with significant programmatic impact. In some cases, such as cybersecurity, the skills gaps GAO identified were consistent with the Working Group's findings. But GAO's work has also identified additional skills gaps. For example, a decline in telecommunication expertise at multiple agencies contributed to delays and cost overruns of 44 percent when those agencies were transitioning to a new network of telecommunications services. The Working Group did not address a more comprehensive list of skills gaps because of various methodological shortcomings that included insufficient analysis of workforce data early in the process. In 2015, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the CHCO Council plan to identify and address a new set of government-wide skills gaps. It will be important that key lessons learned from the initial efforts to identify skills gaps inform this next round of work, including the need to (1) use a data-driven approach early in the process, (2) prioritize occupations using criteria that consider programmatic impact, and (3) consult with subject matter experts and other stakeholders prior to the identification of skills gaps in occupations.

Key features of OPM's efforts to predict emerging skills gaps are in the early planning stages. GAO has previously reported that further progress in closing skills gaps will depend on, among other things, the extent to which OPM develops a capacity to predict emerging skills gaps beyond those areas already identified. A re-named interagency group, known as the Federal Agency Skills Team, plans to strengthen the methodology used to identify emerging skills gaps. Additionally, OPM officials are discussing plans to modify OPM's workforce database to capture government-wide staffing data. However, OPM will need to establish a schedule for modifying this database to ensure its implementation. OPM officials also stated that because agencies' capacity to assess workforce competencies varies, OPM does not have government-wide data on competency gaps, which is needed to identify emerging cross-agency skills gaps. In conjunction with agencies' CHCOs, OPM will need to strengthen agencies' ability to assess their competency needs that are critical to successfully achieving their mission and goals.

OPM and selected agencies that GAO reviewed—the Departments of Commerce (Commerce) and Energy (DOE), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—could improve efforts to address skills gaps by strengthening their use of quarterly data-driven reviews, known as HRstat meetings. Specifically, the metrics used by the selected agencies during their HRstat meetings vary from agency to agency, making it difficult for OPM to assess agencies' progress in closing skills gaps government-wide. Although it is important for agencies to have their own HRstat metrics, OPM should work with the CHCO Council to develop a core set of HRstat metrics that all agencies use so that OPM may have the ability to analyze skills gap data across the government.

Why GAO Did This Study

Mission-critical skills gaps both within federal agencies and across the federal workforce pose a high risk to the nation because they impede the government from cost-effectively serving the public and achieving results.

GAO was asked to review progress OPM has made in closing government-wide skills gaps, achieving its cross-agency priority goal, and additional steps needed to better identify and address skills gaps. This report assesses (1) lessons learned from initial efforts to close critical skills gaps and how they can inform future initiatives, (2) what progress OPM has made in building a predictive capacity to identify future mission-critical skills gaps, and (3) how OPM and agencies are using HRstat to identify and close skills gaps. To address these objectives, GAO reviewed documentation; interviewed OPM officials; and reviewed the implementation of HRstat meetings at Commerce, DOE, and USAID.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that OPM (1) strengthen its methodology for identifying and addressing skills gaps, (2) establish a schedule and process for collecting government-wide staffing and competency data, and (3) develop a core set of metrics for use in agencies' HRstat reviews. OPM generally concurred with the first and third recommendations but did not concur with the second recommendation because of funding implications. GAO acknowledges there may be funding constraints; however, GAO's recommendation may help OPM address these constraints.

For more information, contact Robert Goldenkoff at (202) 512-2757 or goldenkoffr@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: OPM has sought to strengthen the methodology for closing skills gaps by offering skills gap closure training to 1) agency officials with respect to agency-specific skills gaps, and 2) interagency working groups with respect to government-wide skills gaps. Held during the spring of 2016, this OPM-led training sought to provide agency officials with methodologies for identifying the root causes for skills gaps, as well as provide assistance in developing action plans for implementing and monitoring their strategies to address these skills gaps. OPM officials stated that these interagency teams will report on a quarterly basis to the OPM Director on their progress to implement these strategies, beginning in October 2016. OPM, in conjunction with OMB, agencies, and the CHCO Council, needs to ensure that the interagency working groups follow through with developing a methodology for addressing skills gaps.

    Recommendation: To assist the interagency working group, known as the Federal Agency Skills Team (FAST), to better identify government-wide skills gaps having programmatic impacts and measure its progress towards closing them, the Director of OPM--in conjunction with the CHCO Council--should strengthen its approach and methodology by (1) assisting FAST in developing goals for closing skills gaps with targets that are both clear and measurable; (2) working with FAST to design outcome-oriented performance metrics that align with overall targets for closing skills gaps and link to the activities for addressing kills gaps; (3) incorporating greater input from subject matter experts, as planned; and (4) ensuring FAST consistently follows key practices for project planning.

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: OPM officials reported that it has partnered with the Chief Learning Officers Council to leverage resources to develop a framework to support agencies efforts to develop competency assessments. Additionally, OPM reported that it has created an internal working group to determine whether its Enterprise Human Resources Integration (EHRI) personnel database can support having a predictive capacity for identifying emerging skills gaps across the government, including the ability to collect and use information on the competencies of the federal workforce. OPM needs to pursue modifying EHRI to support the collection of staffing and competency data.

    Recommendation: To ensure that OPM builds the predictive capacity to identify emerging skills gaps across the government--including the ability to collect and use reliable information on the competencies of the federal workforce for government-wide workforce analysis--the Director of OPM should (1) establish a schedule specifying when OPM will modify its Enterprise Human Resources Integration database to capture staffing data that it currently collects from agencies through its annual workforce data reporting process; and (2) work with agency CHCOs to bolster the ability of agencies to assess workforce competencies by sharing competency surveys, lessons learned, and other tools and resources.

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: Officials reported that OPM has partnered with the CHCO Council to implement a government-wide set of metrics for use as part of a government-wide benchmarking effort. However, it has no plans to coordinate the data collection efforts of agencies' HRstat reviews with the collection efforts of the interagency working group. OPM stated that coordinating the data collection was not possible because agencies' HRstat reviews have different goals and collect different types of data than OPM's interagency working group. We maintain that action on our recommendation is important because it is likely that the core metrics collected under HRstat could help inform the efforts of the interagency working group and thus reduce duplicative efforts. Moreover, the use of a core set of metrics from agencies' HRstat reviews could aid in monitoring actual progress in closing skills gaps government-wide.

    Recommendation: To help agencies and OPM better monitor progress toward closing skills gaps within agencies and government-wide, the Director of OPM should (1) work with the CHCO Council to develop a core set of metrics that all agencies should use as part of their HRstat data-driven reviews; and (2) coordinate with FAST personnel and explore the feasibility of collecting information needed by FAST as part of agencies' HRstat reviews.

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

 

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