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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Robert Goldenkoff
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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: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: As of January 2018, OPM has developed an action plan template for closing skills gaps that adheres to our selected best practices for project planning. These practices include identifying the root cause of the issue or problem, establishing an overall objective or goal, developing specific action items, assigning roles and responsibilities for those actions, establishing the duration of those actions, and using outcome oriented performance metrics to gauge progress. Seventeen CFO Act agencies have adopted these action plan templates and, in nearly all instances across all best practices, applied it to 25 mission-critical occupations. This effort complements prior work from OPM and the CHCO Council, summarized in the 2017 High Risk Update, to develop an improved methodology for identifying skills gaps and institutionalize efforts to work with agencies and subject matter experts in developing plans to address those skills gaps. As a result of these sustainable improvements that help to make sure agencies' preliminary efforts to address skills gaps are on the right track, we are closing this recommendation as being implemented.

    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 skills 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

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: Although OPM did not initially concur with this recommendation, OPM has taken actions towards addressing it by using the EHRI database, in combination with other sources, to generate workforce data to assist agencies in their efforts to identify skills gaps. In March 2019, OPM reported that it believed that collecting staffing gap targets through an alternative system, MAX Collect, would provide a more efficient and accurate means to collect workforce data than EHRI. In February 2020, OPM officials reported that it has used MAX Collect to address a portion of the recommendation by sharing lessons learned to close skills gaps. MAX Collect also stores and makes relevant tools and training available to users. However, OPM still needs to collect and store a consistent set of staffing and competency data. Without the collection and sharing of this data, OPM cannot perform valuable government-wide analysis to predict and address skills gaps in occupations affecting multiple agencies.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: To address this recommendation, in January 2015, OPM developed an analytical tool, known as the multi-factor model, to assist agencies with identifying skills gaps within their workforces. The model uses four metrics (two-year retention rate, quit rate, retirement rates, and applicant quality) identified by OPM officials and subject-matter experts as appropriate for identifying mission-critical occupations that are at high risk of becoming skill gaps. Data from OPM's Enterprise Human Resources Integration (EHRI) system and from its FedScope platform is used to populate the model. In addition to the model's four metrics, agencies are able to incorporate other metrics to monitor progress on closing skills gaps as part of the agency's HRstat data-driven reviews. Based on feedback received from stakeholders, OPM revised the model and began training agency human resource professionals on its use beginning in March 2015. OPM's Acting Director issued a memo in April 2016 to all agency Chief Human Capital Officers stating that OPM would provide guidance and tools for conducting root cause analysis, developing an action plan, setting targets and developing outcome-oriented metrics, as part of a larger strategy for identifying and closing workforce skills gaps. OPM continued to develop the multi-factor model and reported in August 2018 that most but not all agencies were using the multi-factor model as part of their efforts to close skills gaps. Additionally, they stated that OPM would be seeking input from data management experts on how to improve collecting and analyzing data for the multi-factor model. OPM officials also stated that they would be pulling data from EHRI and other sources in the second quarter of FY2019 to prepare its report on mitigating skills gaps for FY2020. Lastly, in April 2020, OPM reported that, with the exception of the Department of Defense that has statutory requirements for addressing its skills gaps, all agencies have used the multi-factor model with the same four metrics for identifying skills gaps, and, as such, have fulfilled this portion of the recommendation. In January 2017, the Federal Agency Skills Teams (FAST), for both governmentwide and agency-specific skills gaps, began reporting quarterly to OPM on their progress to close skills gaps. Working with the CHCO Council, OPM designed an action plan template that agency FASTs use as a model for identifying strategies to close skills gaps. At these quarterly meetings with OPM, FASTs report on the progress of their work, including how their action plans' strategies were developed and how its performance metrics are aligned with root cause analyses performed by the FASTs. OPM officials have stated that they have no plans to require agencies to integrate the work of their FASTs with their HRstat reviews, citing its deference to agencies on identifying the most appropriate metrics to use for their HRstat reviews. Nonetheless, the action plans and the accompanying processes created and used by OPM and the FASTs can help sustain the federal government's efforts to address skills gaps into the future and, therefore, fulfills the intent of this portion of the recommendation.

    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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