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International Trade Administration: Global Markets Employee Focus Groups Raise Workforce Management Concerns

GAO-24-106747 Published: Oct 26, 2023. Publicly Released: Oct 26, 2023.
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Fast Facts

The Global Markets unit in the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration helps small- and medium-sized U.S. businesses enter and expand into international markets.

In May 2023, we found that the Global Markets unit didn't have a comprehensive strategic workforce plan and needed to address human capital office vacancies. We held six focus group sessions with employees to get their perspectives on these and other issues.

Common themes emerged from these discussions about hiring and recruiting, the promotion process, organizational structure, understaffing, and more. Management can use these results to improve workforce management.

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What GAO Found

In previous work, GAO found that the Department of Commerce should improve workforce planning and management in the International Trade Administration's (ITA) Global Markets (GM) unit. GAO found that GM had limited funding increases and a decreasing federal workforce, did not document some staffing allocation procedures, lacked a comprehensive workforce plan, and had difficulty providing core human capital services, among other issues. During audit work, GAO conducted six virtual focus group sessions with a total of 35 GM employees to obtain their perspectives on GM's workforce planning and management. Of the six focus groups, two each were composed of participants from (1) headquarters, (2) overseas, and (3) the U.S. field.

The six focus groups provided a range of perspectives on several selected workforce management areas, including (1) human capital activities, (2) resources, (3) organizational structure, (4) collaboration and coordination, (5) administrative functions and technology, and (6) agency mission and impact. For example, with regard to human capital activities, focus group participants discussed issues related to hiring and recruiting; vacancies and succession planning; employee career progression; and diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA). With regard to resources, headquarters participants raised concerns about the timing of the budget cycle, overseas participants highlighted increasing administrative costs, and U.S. field participants noted strong concerns about understaffing.

Why GAO Did This Study

GM supports U.S. businesses by assisting them in increasing their exports and entering new international markets, advancing U.S. business interests abroad, and attracting investment in the U.S. economy. At the end of fiscal year 2021, GM had about 1,440 employees, including Foreign Commercial Service Officers in 76 countries, as well as Civil Service staff in U.S. field offices in metropolitan areas around the country and at GM headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Obtaining employee input is a component of workforce management leading practices. Focus groups are not methodologically designed to measure the extent or magnitude of a problem or generalize results to a larger population of all GM employees. Nevertheless, these findings provide a cross-section of thoughts and ideas that may be similar or different across the groupings of participants.

To identify these perspectives, GAO conducted six virtual focus group sessions that involved structured small-group discussions designed to gather in-depth information about specific workforce management issues. In each focus group session, GAO asked a series of discussion questions as well as five polling questions.

For more information, contact Kimberly Gianopoulos at (202) 512-8612 or

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Civil serviceCompliance oversightGlobal marketsGovernment employeesHuman capital managementInternational tradeLabor forcePerformance auditsStrategic planningSuccession planningWorkforce managementWorkforce planning