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: 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 causes of skills gaps, 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. 17 CFO Act agencies adopted this action plan template 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: As of January 2018, officials reported that OPM has developed a workforce competency assessment tool that it is piloting internally in 2018 and piloting with several agencies beginning in FY 2019. According to OPM, agencies will be able to use this tool to incorporate self-assessments, managerial assessments, and related gap analyses as they implement competency assessments across a range of occupations. Additionally, OPM reported that it is working to modify its Enterprise Human Resources Integration (EHRI) personnel database to allow for real-time updates on mission-critical occupation (MCO) staffing data. Finalizing a schedule for this, as well as expanding upon current pilot efforts with the workforce competency assessment tool, would allow OPM and agencies to better predict emerging skills gaps.

    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

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: As of January 2018, officials reported that OPM is planning to use its annual Human Capital Reviews with agencies--a codified feature of December 2016 revisions to the human capital regulation--to discuss HRstat metrics. Officials noted that they would encourage agencies to align, when appropriate, the government-wide and agency-specific metrics they track as part of informal quarterly reporting to OPM on mission-critical skills gaps (such as time-to-hire, employee satisfaction, and retention) with the metrics used for this formal reporting process through HRstat. Aligning HRstat metrics with agencies' skill gap measurement strategies could result in a core suite of government-wide metrics while still respecting the need for agency-specific variations. Doing so would also provide OPM and individual agency leaders alike a greater visibility over the workforce and an improved ability to predict emerging skills gaps.

    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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