Federal Workforce: Talent Management Strategies to Help Agencies Better Compete in a Tight Labor Market

GAO-19-723T Published: Sep 25, 2019. Publicly Released: Sep 25, 2019.
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Fast Facts

Technology, demographics, and attitudes toward work are evolving. But federal government employment policies were designed generations ago. As a result, the government may struggle to compete for talented workers—which is one reason why federal human capital management is on our High Risk list.

We testified on talent management strategies. For example, agencies can:

Assess skills gaps to ensure they’re getting and keeping the people with the skills they need

Acquire talent through internships

Use existing work-life balance incentives such as flexible scheduling

Engage employees by involving them in decisions and developing them

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What GAO Found

Outmoded approaches to personnel functions such as job classification, pay, and performance management are hampering the ability of agencies to recruit, retain, and develop employees. At the same time, agency operations are being deeply affected by a set of evolving trends in federal work, including how work is done and the skills that employees need to accomplish agency missions.

Key Trends Affecting Federal Work

Key Trends Affecting Federal Work

Given these challenges and trends, federal agencies will need to apply talent management strategies such as the following:

Align human capital strategy with current and future mission requirements. Agencies need to identify the knowledge and skills necessary to respond to current and future demands. Key practices include identifying and assessing existing skills, competencies, and skills gaps.

Acquire and assign talent. To ensure the appropriate capacity exists to address evolving mission requirements, agencies can use internships, cultivate a diverse talent pipeline, highlight their respective missions, and recruit early in the school year.

Incentivize and compensate employees. While agencies may struggle to offer competitive pay in certain labor markets, they can leverage existing incentives that appeal to workers' desire to set a schedule and to work in locations that provide work-life balance.

Engage employees. Engaged employees are more productive and less likely to leave, according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Agencies can better ensure their employees are engaged by managing their performance, involving them in decisions, and providing staff development.

Why GAO Did This Study

The federal workforce is critical to federal agencies' ability to address the complex social, economic, and security challenges facing the country. However, the federal government faces long-standing challenges in strategically managing its workforce. We first added federal strategic human capital management to our list of high-risk government programs and operations in 2001. Although Congress, OPM, and individual agencies have made improvements since then, federal human capital management remains a high-risk area because mission-critical skills gaps within the federal workforce pose a high risk to the nation.

This testimony focuses on (1) key hiring and other human capital management challenges facing federal agencies, and (2) talent management strategies identified from GAO's prior work that agencies can use to be more attractive employers in a tight labor market.

This testimony is based on GAO's large body of work on federal human capital management issued primarily between July 2014 and July 2019. To conduct these studies, GAO reviewed government-wide employment data and interviewed officials from OPM and subject matter specialists from think tanks, academia, government employee unions, and other areas.

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Of the 29 recommendations to OPM that GAO has designated as priorities for implementation, 21 are aimed at improving strategic human capital management efforts government-wide. OPM agreed or partially agreed with most of these recommendations, of which 11 are still open. GAO will continue to monitor OPM's progress in addressing them.

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