You are elected president — now what?

The change of administrations always offers an opportunity for the federal government to do a bit of a reset. What does not reset is the federal workforce that ...

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog,, and was republished here with permission from the author.

This post is not about the election. I promise. Instead, let’s think ahead to January and what the next president is going to do. He or she will not have to worry about a lack of advice, whether it is for people to staff the administration or the policy direction he or she should pursue.

There are many groups focusing on providing transition advice, with some of the best coordinating their efforts to provide a cohesive set of recommendations. I have been involved with several of the organizations and had the honor of co-leading (with General Services Administration’s Paul Tsagaroulis) the team that developed Human Capital transition recommendations for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC) Presidential Transition Project.

ACT-IAC is a non-profit educational organization established to create a more effective and innovative government. ACT-IAC provides a unique, objective and trusted forum where government and industry executives work together to improve public services and agency operations through the use of technology.

The ACT-IAC Institute for Innovation has produced a report, Transforming Government Through Technology, to identify a number of steps the next administration can take to use technology to deliver the quality of services the American people have become accustomed to getting from leading companies, such as Apple, Google, and Amazon.

The introduction of the report says “effective, innovative use of information technology has revolutionized private sector business models over the last 20 years. Not only have most business-to-business and business-to-consumer interactions moved online, but entire industries have been transformed through business model changes enabled by information technology.

Government has largely failed to keep pace with industry’s business transformation and information technology revolution. Despite spending over $80 billion annually on information technology, most federal agencies have seen little change in how they perform their work or interact and transact with citizens, businesses and other governments. Where change has happened, it has typically been the automation of current processes or providing information through websites. The lack of change is caused by federal laws, processes and culture that inhibit or even penalize risk taking, change and innovation.

The themes of this election year make it clear that voters believe government, and particularly its outcomes, must change. Accustomed to dealing with modern internet-age companies like Amazon, Apple and Google, customers that encounter old-school federal government processes are frequently left confused, frustrated and angered. This reinforces citizen perceptions that government is ineffective and unable to address today’s societal needs.

What sort of dramatic steps will it take to get government to raise its level of capability and performance? This report lays out a strategy for change that encompasses the skills, practices and culture that private sector companies have demonstrated are necessary for success. While many of the recommendations can be implemented by the new administration immediately, as part of its overall management plan, others will require longer-term cooperation between the Congress, the administration and the private sector.

Technology solutions require people to make them happen. That is the reason ACT-IAC included a human capital section in the report. The government needs to rethink how it approaches its own workforce and how it incorporates industry support. Information technology is one of the areas where government uses a blended workforce of federal employees and contractors. That approach generally serves the government well, but there are many areas where improvements are needed. To make that happen, the report calls for a four-point plan to:

  • Staff the administration rapidly.
  • Make better use of existing hiring processes now.
  • Embrace the industry employee base as a critical talent asset.
  • Initiate a long-term comprehensive civil service reform initiative.

The Government Accountability Office’s 2015 High Risk Report states “Mission-critical skills gaps in such occupations as cybersecurity and acquisition pose a high-risk to the nation: whether within specific federal agencies or across the federal workforce, they impede federal agencies from cost-effectively serving the public and achieving results.”

Those gaps are growing as the workforce ages and government continues to fall short on recruiting younger talent. In fact, only 43 percent of feds believe their agencies can recruit the talent they need for mission-critical occupations (MCOs). The problem with recruiting younger workers is particularly acute. The number of under-30 federal workers dropped from 234K in 2009 to 162K in 2016. The problem is even worse in the IT workforce, where 50 percent are over age 50 and only 3.4 percent are under age 30.

Staffing the administration rapidly is a a critical issue to which the Partnership for Public Service has devoted considerable attention. Their work on the issue has been so thorough that the ACT-IAC report recommends adopting all of their recommendations, including filling the top 100 positions soon after inauguration, and an additional 300 more by the congressional recess in August.

Existing hiring processes will be the means by which the government fills its vacancies for at least the next year or two. The ACT-IAC report recommends several steps the Administration can take get immediate improvements. They include:

  • Move vacant positions in the hardest to fill MCOs from the competitive civil service to the excepted service
  • Use existing critical position pay, special salary rates and recruiting/retention allowances to enable the government to compete for in-demand talent
  • Designate agencies as “Recruiting Managers” for key MCOs

Industry and grantee talent is a crucial segment of today’s technology workforce. Most agencies use a mix of their own employees, contractors and grantees to deliver IT services and tools. Yet, few agencies manage those assets as a single workforce. Agencies that do workforce planning, for example, typically focus only on their own employees. Planning for contract workers or grantees is typically left to the program managers or acquisition professionals. Because the work is delivered by a blended workforce, it requires a similar approach to planning.

Comprehensive civil service reform is necessary to bring government talent management into the 21st century. Even if the administration fully embraces the first three recommendations, the government is still left with mid-20th century civil service laws that were designed for a mostly clerical workforce that we no longer have.  The ACT-IAC report recommends that the next President create a Commission on Public Service, with experts from government, industry and academia, to design a comprehensive, budget-neutral approach to civil service reform that includes:

  • A modern, flexible process for job classification processes that reduces the current 400+ job classifications by at least 75 percent and supports significant delayering of the bureaucracy.
  • Market-based pay that allows the government to compete for and retain talent.
  • Performance incentives for individual and organizational excellence.
  • Streamlined hiring practices that preserve merit as the cornerstone of public service and recognize the highly mobile nature of post-baby boom generations.
  • A performance culture that uses outcome-based measures to support reward systems.
  • Accountability measures to ensure poor performance and misconduct are addressed.
  • An approach to leadership that holds supervisors and managers accountable for employee engagement and organizational performance.
  • An effective process to allow government and industry to exchange talent.
  • A reimagined 21st century Senior Executive Service that includes greater accountability, a peer review process for adverse actions (much like the U.S. armed forces processes for general/flag officers), and a performance-based pay process that directly links executive pay with agency outcomes.

The change of administrations always offers an opportunity for the federal government to do a bit of a reset. What does not reset is the federal workforce that carries out presidential programs. Every administration learns, sometimes far too late, that the federal workforce has many talented people who can be tremendous assets. If the next President recognizes that on day one, and adopts this set of recommendations, s/he will have a much greater likelihood of making his/her policy objectives happen.

Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.

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