The intelligence community, like the rest of the government, is coping with a sudden budget decrease. But leaders say they won’t repeat the mistakes they made during the last budget downturn, when agencies all but ceased hiring new personnel.
When the nation’s biggest intelligence target dissolved with the collapse of the Soviet Union, cutting the intelligence budget seemed like a reasonable step. So over the following decade, U.S. intelligence spending fell by 23 percent. And since officials were more focused on satellite imagery and other new technologies than on human intelligence, the workforce took a disproportionate hit.
Intelligence agencies mostly used an attrition strategy to manage their shrinking personnel budgets, and at the low point of the budget cuts, in 1995, the CIA brought only 25 new officers into its clandestine service. The rate of new hires was similar across the intelligence community.
“In the 90s, everything pretty much came to a halt in terms of hiring, and then it was twice as hard to get it started again. We’ve learned from that as a community,” Deborah Kircher, the intelligence community’s chief human capital officer, said Wednesday at a forum organized by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance and Government Executive Media Group. “The IC agencies have tried to keep the hiring pipeline open during this downturn. Not every agency has been able to do that at the highest level, but everybody’s making a conscious effort.”
The 9/11 commission pointed to the 1990s staffing cuts as one contributing factor to the 2001 terrorist attacks, but the huge drop in hiring, followed by a 180-degree reversal in the aftermath of 9/11, created major distortions in the age and experience profiles of intelligence professionals that the IC leadership still is struggling with today.
A RAND Corporation study of 2007 workforce data found the IC hired more than 40 percent of its employees in the years since 9/11, and a similar proportion has been working since the Cold War still was underway. That leaves the IC with very few people who are midway through their careers and who are ready to replace the seasoned employees who will leave government during the current budget drawdown.
“We created a bathtub in the 1990s, and we can’t afford to stop the spigot of new talent,” said Deborah Hartman, the director for human resources at the Defense Intelligence Agency. “Strategic management is key to this. We need to develop our folks internally as well as bringing in new folks so that we can develop careerists who can go across the IC and be successful.”
Hartman is one of several IC officials who say they are taking a more thoughtful approach to the current spending downturn, both so that they can manage current workforce needs and so that they don’t create another bathtub for their successors 20 years from now.
There are some reasons to believe they’ll be successful. For one, there was no such thing as a chief human capital officer in most intelligence agencies, let alone one that could oversee all 17 agencies during the 1990s cutbacks. All of the IC agencies now have CHCOs, but that’s largely a result of a law Congress passed in 2004. Before that, with no one managing the workforce at a strategic level, the cuts tended to follow the government’s default “salami-slicing” approach to managing funding cuts.
This time around, strategic workforce management is a topic that’s front-and-center before agency directors, Hartman said. DIA’s director leads one of three panels her agency is using to manage a complex array of human capital decisions, including which missions and job functions are most essential, now that the agency is once again operating under constrained funding.
“The Career Management Board is where we look at strategic decisions across DIA and how we make choices about the types of positions we’re going to fill and that are going to be our strategic baseline,” she said. “The second tier is the Career Management Council, which is about moving individuals across the enterprise, because we have people in the combatant commands across the world and we also have a lot of people in the United States. The third tier is at the worker level, the Career Advisory Group, which lets them provide ideas to leadership about where they see gaps in workforce talent or their own career progression. We’re looking at all of that across the DIA construct.”
Since budgets aren’t climbing, intelligence agencies will have to make room for new hires by culling staff from the more senior levels of their workforces.
Kircher said the current attrition rate among longtime IC workers is low. Most agencies haven’t resorted to reductions in force, but most have instituted incentive programs for early retirement or separation.
A more calculated hiring, retention process
And as one way to fill the “bathtub” between long-serving intelligence employees and those who came onto the fold after 9/11, Kircher said agencies are increasing their use of a personnel practice called “rank and person,” which tones down the traditional idea of tying a particular position to a personnel grade.
Under that construct, agencies hope the people who end up holding those billets will get there because they’re the best and brightest, not just because it’s their turn.
For example, a GS-13 employee could jump into a GS-14 job long before he or she is due for a promotion to the pay grade that traditionally would have accompanied the position and would be evaluated for a pay raise later on. That’s a contrast to the “rank and position” process the IC and the broader government has traditionally used, in which eligibility to hold jobs was tied directly to an employee’s position on the General Schedule.
“It’s a much more methodical and deliberate process,” Kircher said. “A lot of IC agencies are going much more to the rank and person concept. Everybody’s striving to do a good job, but it’s a good motivating factor to move to the next level.”
Kircher said IC agencies also are trying to come to grips with the fact that today’s new hires differ from the people they were recruiting a generation ago.
While it used to be true that most feds got into the civil service and stayed for a career, most members of the current generation are just fine with switching jobs every few years.
She said the IC is trying to accommodate that trend through the use of joint duty assignments. The idea is to retain those younger workers within the intelligence community’s broader talent pool while creating HR policies that are flexible enough to let them move between agencies.
“We have to reshape our strategy moving forward. They are passionate about moving around,” she said. “A lot of people in the past would perform joint duty maybe once in their career, but we’re looking now at ways to do this multiple times throughout a career. People don’t necessarily want to come in and stay in one agency or even in one career path for 20 years anymore. So we’re looking at maybe having one group of generalists and one group of experts. We need those experts who are very focused for an entire career, but we also need people who are going to be flexible and meet our surge requirements. Some of them may even want to go out and work in private industry and learn new skills for a couple years. We have to find ways to let them do that and then come back. This is a whole different workforce, and we have to listen to them too.”