OPM takes first step to identify what federal employees need to know to work with AI

The Office of Personnel Management is taking its first step to define the skills and competencies federal employees will need to work with artificial intelligen...

The Office of Personnel Management is taking its first step to define the skills and competencies federal employees will need to work with artificial intelligence.

OPM Director Kiran Ahuja, in a governmentwide memo to chief human capital officers, outlined more than 50 total competencies agencies should consider when hiring staff into AI-related positions.

“For now, agencies may use the provided competencies as supported by a job analysis for recruitment, selection and hiring,” Ahuja wrote in the memo.

Agencies remain responsible for vetting the tech skills and qualifications of candidates, and must determine whether the competencies outlined by OPM apply to the positions they’re looking to fill.

OPM’s memo marks the first of several actions the agency must take to support an AI-ready federal workforce under the 2020 AI in Government Act.

The 2020 AI in Government Act requires OPM to identify core skills and competencies for AI-related federal positions.

The legislation requires OPM to establish an occupational series or update and improve an existing occupational series to include AI-focused jobs.

OPM Press Secretary Viet Tran said in a press release that the agency, under the legislation, will identify key skills and competencies required for positions related to artificial intelligence and establishing or updating an occupational series.

“This means creating or improving job categories specifically for AI-related positions. This will help ensure that there are clear job classifications for AI roles within the federal government,” Tran said. 

Thursday’s memo outlines 44 general competencies and 14 technical competencies for the federal workforce.

Ahuja told agency CHCOs that the competencies will help agencies trying to pinpoint the “AI skills needed to fill positions to expand AI capabilities governmentwide.”

General competencies for AI include information management, computer skills, customer service and contracting and procurement.

The memo also outlines technical competencies for AI experts in government, which include “data extraction and transformation,” data analysis and communicating the results from AI and machine learning tools.

The memo also highlights several social skills under technical competencies — including “emotional intelligence,” “partnering” and “political savvy.”

The memo defines emotional intelligence in this context as employees conducting work “with empathy for the complexities of policy implementation and the role of civil servants at all levels of government, and with a high degree of emotional intelligence, humility, and respect for different lived experiences.”

OPM issued a governmentwide AI workforce survey, held focus groups with human resources and AI subject matter experts, and conducted an environmental scan of AI work.

OPM also based its work on data collected from other federal agencies, the private sector and academic sources.

The AI in Government Act also tasks OPM with coming up with an estimate of the number of federal employees in AI-related jobs, and to break those figures down agency by agency.

OPM must also provide a two-year and five-year timeline of how many federal employees with AI-related jobs agencies will need.

As for the next steps under the legislation, Ahuja told agencies that OPM is developing an AI competency model to support federal agency talent acquisition efforts, as well as developing AI interpretive classification policy guidance.

OPM, under the legislation, must give the HSGAC and House Oversight and Accountability Committee a timeline of when it expects to meet these requirements.

The legislation also requires the General Services Administration to create an AI Center of Excellence to accelerate the adoption of this technology across government.

The OPM memo is the latest effort by the Biden administration to unpack the challenges and opportunities of AI in the federal government.

Senior administration officials told reporters in May that the Office of Management and Budget will release draft guidance later this summer on the use of AI systems within the federal government.

The OMB guidance will establish specific policies for federal agencies to follow when it comes to the development, procurement and use of AI systems — all while upholding the rights of the American public.

A senior administration official told reporters that the upcoming draft guidance reflects the reality that “AI is coming into virtually every part of the public mission.”

OMB expects the upcoming guidance will also enable agencies to tap into AI tools to meet their missions and equitably serve Americans. It also expects the guidance will serve as a template for state and local governments to follow.

The AI in Government Act stems from the final recommendations of a congressionally authorized committee of technology experts.

The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, before it disbanded, warned that the federal government, at all levels, doesn’t have the workforce it needs to stay on top of this emerging technology.

The commission, in its final report issued in March 2021, set an ambitious goal for the Defense Department and the intelligence community to be “AI-ready” by 2025.

NSCAI Chairman Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, told lawmakers that there’s a “huge talent deficit” that will only worsen if defense and civilian agencies don’t develop career pathways for rising talent to stay in government service.

Schmidt agreed with other commissioners that DoD and civilian agencies could probably reskill a decent portion of the current workforce into AI-focused jobs.

But until agencies figure out a way to identify employees with the skills and aptitude needed to succeed in AI-focused jobs, Schmidt said those employees will remain “underutilized.”

DoD is stepping up its readiness around artificial intelligence and is building up the data literacy of its acquisition workforce.

DoD’s Defense Acquisition University is on a mission to upskill more than 3,000 military and civilian professionals across the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

DAU is planning to upskill these employees on data analytics and AI skills to better understand the emerging tech that DoD is buying.

The university offers certification training, elective training and mission-assistance work to more than 155,000 members of the defense acquisition workforce.

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