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Personnel Mobility Program: Improved Guidance Could Help Federal Agencies Address Skills Gaps and Maximize Other Benefits

GAO-22-104414 Published: Jan 27, 2022. Publicly Released: Jan 27, 2022.
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Fast Facts

Federal agencies have struggled to recruit personnel with critical scientific and technological expertise, leading to skills gaps across the government.

The personnel mobility program helps by temporarily assigning personnel between the federal government and state governments, universities, or other organizations. For example, some agencies have used this program to bring in researchers to lead highly technical projects.

However, it is unclear how many agencies are using this program to address critical skills gaps. To help, we recommended that the Office of Personnel Management obtain complete and accurate data about this program.

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What GAO Found

The personnel mobility program can address skills gaps by providing temporary assignments for purposes that benefit both federal agencies and certain non-federal organizations. The four agencies GAO selected for review—the Departments of Defense and Energy, General Services Administration, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration—used the mobility program to bring top scientists, researchers, and professors into the federal government to lead complex and highly technical projects and address emerging issues. Officials also identified a number of other benefits of the program—flexible time commitments for participants of up to 2 years, ease of administration, and lower costs—compared with other means of gaining skills or expertise.

Despite these benefits, GAO found these agencies used the mobility program infrequently. The number of non-federal participants at selected agencies represented less than 1 percent of their total civilian workforce in a given fiscal year. Agency officials attributed this to certain limitations, as shown below.

Selected Agencies Identified Personnel Mobility Program Benefits and Limitations

Selected Agencies Identified Personnel Mobility Program Benefits and Limitations

The Office of Personnel Management's (OPM) written mobility program guidance states that “non-federal [participants]…may exercise supervision over federal employees.” However, this guidance does not fully reflect advice OPM provides agencies that have sought clarity about the supervisory duties allowed, such as those related to performance management and relevant training. Without clear written guidance regarding supervisory activities, mobility program participants may take performance management actions that could pose risks to the agency.

The agencies in GAO's review managed mobility program-related costs by negotiating cost-sharing agreements with the participant's home organization. Officials at selected agencies described key considerations that may affect the proportion of the participant's costs selected agencies would reimburse the home organization. These considerations include time commitment, the distribution of benefits to both the federal government and the participant's home organization, and salary limits. The selected agencies also vetted mobility program candidates for eligibility, technical qualifications, security, and conflicts of interest.

In addition, OPM does not have complete and accurate data needed to track mobility program use. Thus, OPM does not know how often the program is being used across the federal government. Without a process to obtain complete and accurate data, OPM does not have the information needed to reliably inform its strategic decisions to oversee, provide guidance, promote, or more generally understand how federal agencies are using the mobility program to meet their mission and address critical skills gaps.

Why GAO Did This Study

Federal agencies need skilled personnel to address the complex social, economic, and security challenges facing the United States. The mobility program, established under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act of 1970, can help agencies address their mission critical skills gaps with temporary assignments.

GAO was asked to review OPM's oversight over the personnel mobility program. This report examines, among other things, the frequency with which selected agencies used the mobility program from fiscal years 2016 – 2020; selected agencies' management of the program's costs; and OPM's tracking of agencies' use of the program.

GAO selected four agencies for review. These agencies were selected as potential frequent users of the program based on a literature review and interviews with agency officials. For the selected agencies, GAO (1) reviewed a selection of 53 program agreements; (2) reviewed policies, procedures, and guidance documents; (3) analyzed mobility program data in OPM's database; and (4) interviewed officials.


GAO recommends that OPM (1) update its guidance regarding participants supervising federal employees and (2) establish a process and guidance to obtain complete and accurate mobility program data. OPM agreed with the first recommendation and disagreed with the second. GAO maintains the recommendation is still warranted, as discussed in this report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Personnel Management The Director of OPM should update its written guidance regarding nonfederal mobility program participants supervising federal employees to clarify the types of supervisory activities allowed and advise agencies of the need to provide these participants with federal supervisor training or briefings in relevant performance management areas. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
OPM agreed with this recommendation. In July 2022, OPM updated its written guidance on its webpage to to clarify the types of supervisory activities allowed. Specifically, OPM's guidance was revised to state that a non-Federal employee who is assigned to a Federal position, either by detail or appointment, may serve as a project lead and perform project management leadership activities such as assigning work, establishing project milestones, completion dates, etc. A non-Federal employee who is assigned to a Federal position, either by detail or appointment, cannot perform other aspects of the Federal supervisory function, such as conducting an employee's annual performance rating, engaging in performance based or adverse action procedures, rewarding employees, etc. As a result of this action, OPM provided important information that agencies need to better administer and mitigate potential risks associated with the personnel mobility program.
Office of Personnel Management The Director of OPM should establish a process and update its guidance to obtain complete and accurate data about the number of non-federal mobility program participants on detail to federal agencies. (Recommendation 2)
OPM disagreed with this recommendation, in part because they said it would create a reporting burden for agencies. However, this data could be used to determine where there are opportunities for agencies to more fully leverage the mobility program to address critical skills and occupation gaps, which has been a government-wide high risk area since 2001. Therefore, we continue to believe that establishing a process and updating its guidance to collect these data are essential for informing the customer service and assistance OPM provides to federal agencies and encourage OPM to explore reasonable steps to do so. As of September 2023, there has been no status change. We will continue to monitor OPM's progress.

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