As we dive deeper into 2022, agencies are working towards building up their federal workforce aligned with the OPM playbook released in January and the recent toolkit shared at the beginning of April. The playbook and toolkit outline tools and support plans to attract and hire the best and the brightest; however, federal agencies are still facing several challenges attracting and retaining new talent.
Many IT professionals are looking to work in more innovative and cutting-edge private-sector roles that utilize new technology and offer enhanced perks. Working for the federal government has become increasingly less enticing to the next generation of talent, as legacy systems and technology remain in place.
At the same time, many experienced federal workers are also leaving roles for the private sector or for retirement. As a result, a lot of institutional knowledge is being lost and it can be difficult to onboard new talent for technology roles.
To help combat these challenges, federal agencies should tap into alternative, creative means for staffing and develop a better system for onboarding and passing down institutional knowledge.
Modernization is happening, but legacy tech will stay
Traditionally, the government has been slower to modernize than the private sector. A report released by the Government Accountability Office last year found that the federal government spends more than $100 billion on IT and cyber-related investments. However, 80% of this funding typically goes to the operations and maintenance of existing IT investments, including legacy systems.
The pandemic has demonstrated that government can modernize quickly — federal agencies sprang into action, implementing years’ worth of modernization technology in just months to address the public’s needs. Only one month into the pandemic, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced a new system for the digital submission of bills, and agencies quickly moved remote, setting up cloud and additional applications and technology to support processes. A few months later, several agencies converted systems to cloud computing services to automate and streamline processes as a result of remote work. Today, with the increase in support for the Technology Modernization Fund and budgets for IT modernization initiatives, agencies are focusing on optimizing the added tech because of the pandemic and keeping the modernization momentum going.
Despite this, many in government are also realizing that some legacy technology is here to stay. Mainframes and legacy technology that cannot be modernized due to the business and operational risk associated with them have to be incorporated into the infrastructure moving forward. The federal workforce, therefore, must be able to incorporate and utilize legacy technology while increasing and evolving other tech aspects of the federal IT infrastructure.
Agencies should invest in modern tools that can coexist with existing legacy systems and augment them with new capabilities. Intelligent automation, AI, and low code/no-code can simplify workflows, improve service delivery, and develop applications faster — allowing workers more time for innovation and tackling more complex problem solving.
The next generation of talent
When it comes to the next generation of federal talent, the government faces two issues: attracting new talent and passing down institutional knowledge to new staff.
To attract new candidates, federal agencies need to acknowledge that the job market has changed. Prospective employees have a new set of requirements that make them feel more drawn to the job. As much as companies choose applicants, applicants choose companies based on what they find attractive. Increased compensation, remote work policies and flexibility in work schedules should be considered to attract more talent.
Federal agencies should also look into creative staffing solutions such as private-public partnerships. Partnerships could include tapping into private tech workers as an augmentation of staff or for volunteer-type work. Programs such as the U.S. Digital Service, where private sector technologists work for term-limited “tours of civic service” alongside federal workers could be expanded to supplement federal agencies’ staff where needed.
Passing on institutional knowledge
While federal agencies work to increase their tech workforce, they should also ensure their onboarding process for new employees is comprehensive and includes the institutional knowledge needed for success. Coders and workers who have expertise in using and programming legacy systems are retiring or moving to the private sector, and newer employees are often inexperienced with old programming languages because many schools no longer teach them.
With experienced workers, not only do they have prior technical knowledge, but they are also equipped with years of hands-on experience of how the systems’ functions have evolved over time and how to troubleshoot problems. Passing down how to operate these systems is one issue, but translating the instinctive tricks and tips gathered over the years is significantly harder.
Lack of employee knowledge and proper onboarding can create blind spots and gaps, leaving government vulnerable. Therefore, the federal government needs a plan to help new hires learn the ways of legacy technology and pass down institutional knowledge. This may require using seasoned workers as volunteers to provide education about the inner workings of legacy technology or bringing in third-party technology companies to troubleshoot legacy systems and pass down findings.
Attracting new talent and solving onboarding challenges is a part of a larger conversation — it’s the modernizing of a mindset for the federal government. Federal agencies must acknowledge that people’s interests have changed. Working remotely, utilizing the latest technology, and being a part of exciting projects that directly impact communities are more valuable to potential employees now. Turning a blind eye to this mindset shift will only hurt the government in the long run. Having structures and plans in place for passing down knowledge along with new perks will help the federal government renew its technical workforce.
By modernizing their capabilities and culture, agencies can gain more value from their existing tech investments and make legacy work more appealing to the next generation of talent. This modernization will be key to acquiring new talent, enhancing the federal IT infrastructure and ensuring mission success.
Joseph Flynn is head of solutions consulting for the public sector at Boomi.