Among the 37 problem areas on the Government Accountability Office’s latest high-risk list, one through line remains clear: skills gaps in the federal workforce are contributing to persistent challenges for agencies and their programs.
Specifically, 22 items — more than half of GAO’s list of vulnerable federal programs and broad government challenges — stem from issues of mission-critical skills gaps.
“I’m very concerned about the federal workforce” U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, head of GAO, said during a House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing Wednesday.
Strategic human capital management, or the ability for agencies to address mission-critical skills gaps, has remained on GAO’s list since 2001. Cybersecurity, acquisition and human resources are three major areas that remain governmentwide skills gaps for agencies.
But GAO said better cybersecurity still requires stronger commitment from leadership. GAO has made more than 4,000 cyber recommendations to agencies since 2010, but less than a quarter have been addressed.
“Many of our recommendations are very technical and very specific in nature. In many ways, we’re providing a roadmap for the agencies to implement them,” GAO Managing Director of IT and Cybersecurity Nick Marinos said during the committee hearing. “At the end of the day, if agency leadership commits resources to it, they can do a better job than they have so far.”
Workforce issues also propelled the latest addition to GAO’s list, the federal prison system. Despite the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), housed in the Department of Justice, having authorization for a workforce of 40,000 employees, the agency currently has just 35,000 staff members. The 15% staffing gap has caused a massive rise in the use of overtime for current employees.
“They’re working on some detailed plans to address this area. We’re going to work with them and agree on a set of specific metrics that we’re going to follow to determine when we take them off the high-risk list,” Dodaro said. “It not only takes leadership commitment, it takes capacity and an action plan and actual monitoring and demonstrating some results.”
In another example, financial management for the Defense Department has remained on GAO’s high-risk list since 1995. Its place on the list for nearly 30 years stems from a myriad of issues.
“Their financial systems are not reliable in a number of cases, they don’t have good internal controls over their property, over their inventory systems,” Dodaro said. “They also don’t have the full type of skills in their workforce that they need in those areas.”
For the DoD program, Dodaro said the critical skills gap comes from a lack of skills in the right area. Financial specialists across the federal workforce are largely concentrated in budget expertise, rather than in expertise with preparing financial statements and auditing.
“They’re making improvements. But I still think they need additional skills to be able to do this,” Dodaro said.
Further slowing progress, though, are internal challenges at OPM. Despite some improvements in tackling the risk area of strategic human capital management, one pointed issue is OPM’s inability to measure gaps within its own workforce.
Without a clear plan in place to address internal skills gaps, OPM will continue to struggle to help other agencies with their skills gaps, GAO said.
“OPM’s human capital operating plan does not explicitly describe strategies for closing the skills gaps of its own workforce, as required in OPM’s guidance to other federal agencies,” GAO said in its high-risk list report.
For strategic human capital management, there have been some improvements in the latest version of GAO’s high-risk list. For example, the Senate’s confirmation of OPM Director Kiran Ahuja in 2021 makes her now the longest-serving permanent director of the agency in years.
“Additionally, in July 2021, OPM resumed stewardship of the Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCO) Council to help connect OPM’s governmentwide human capital policy efforts with agencies’ human capital leaders,” GAO said in its 2023 high-risk list report. “To assist the council in setting its strategic objectives, OPM established an executive steering committee to advise the council on identifying its priorities.”
Addressing skills gaps will likely be a long and bumpy road. The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, said the decades-long agency problems are expedited by past sequestration, as well as budget and staffing cuts. Mekela Panditharatne, counsel for the Brennan Center’s democracy program, said staffing cuts are a core reason behind current challenges in many of the government’s programs.
“Across the board for agencies, they are facing resource shortages,” Panditharatne told Federal News Network. “Most cabinet agencies have fewer federal employees today than they did in 2010. The drop is strikingly bad at some agencies.”
Even if agencies make improvements in staffing numbers, there is still lost expertise and decades of experience, Panditharatne added.
Bringing in younger employees, though, is still a priority for many federal agencies. With just 7% of the federal workforce under the age of 30, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) raised concerns that agencies’ problems with critical skills gaps may worsen over time.
“One of the things that we brought up on this committee is the aging federal workforce,” Mace said. “In the private sector, they don’t have this issue where you have four times the number of federal workforce employees in IT that are over the age of 60. They’ll be entering retirement soon, versus those that are under the age of 30.”
Fixing workforce issues is also a focus for GAO when determining what remains on the list, and what gets removed. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), the Oversight committee’s ranking member, pointed to the significance of the workforce as a means for lowering a program’s vulnerability to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement.
“One of the criteria that [GAO] considers before you remove an area from the high-risk list is agency capacity — specifically, whether or not the agency has the people and the resources needed to sufficiently address and correct the risk,” Raskin said.
Dodaro told The Federal Drive there are two key ways to get on the path toward coming off the list: sustained commitment from leadership, and detailed action plans.
The high-risk list was generally more positive this year — 16 of the 37 items made improvements since the last report in 2021, the highest number of improved items in the last eight years. Since its last high-risk report, GAO said there has been roughly $100 billion in federal savings due to improvements in several high-risk areas.
Despite critical challenges remaining, “this is a story of success,” Dodaro said at the hearing.
The Office of Management and Budget is required to do a review of each item on GAO’s list — but there are no other requirements for agencies to address the items on the list.
Lawmakers have at times raised questions about the effectiveness of the list without requiring agencies to take action, but Dodaro said that doesn’t mean positive progress isn’t being made.
“Nobody ignores this,” Dodaro said. “We won’t let them.”