DoD-commissioned study finds major shortcomings in civilian talent management

The Defense Business Board found DoD's approach to civilian talent is a collection of siloes. The department faces serious risks if it doesn't take talent manag...

The Defense Department’s non-uniformed workforce is comprised of some of the smartest people in the world. That might not be true forever.

DoD’s current policies and practices for managing its civilian cadre are far behind the times, and the department isn’t doing nearly enough to plan its future workforce and find ways to make sure those plans come true, according to a new study by an influential advisory group.

The Defense Business Board review found that DoD doesn’t have the structures or tools to manage its civilian talent as a “strategic asset.” Almost all of its important H.R. functions are handled by individual military services and agencies. DoD’s nominal chief human capital officer is a relatively junior official with no real access to meaningful workforce data. And across the board, training dollars and career-broadening opportunities for civilians are relatively scarce.

While the study found there are some exceptions and bright spots — such as in the department’s acquisition workforce — in general, civilian employees’ chances for training, upskilling and gaining new experiences in other parts of the government are few and far between once they’ve been hired into a particular job.

“Only 500 civilians will graduate from the department’s civilian leader development programs in any given year,” the board wrote. “We could not find a talent exchange program that averaged higher than 20 civilian participants a year. In Academic Year 2023, the Air Force will send just 2% of all its GS-9 civilians (just over 1,500) through professional military education and leadership seminars.”

The study, commissioned by Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, spanned six months during which board members and staff spoke with officials from DoD, the military services, the Office of Personnel Management, and private firms. The board’s leadership did not respond to a Federal News Network request, submitted via its staff, for an interview about the findings.

The written report noted a large gap in what DoD is willing to spend on training its career civilians compared to its military workforce. The starkest difference the study found was in the Navy: $6,010 in annual training costs for sailors compared to $319 for civilians. The gap was much smaller in the Air Force, but there too, the service spends $5,885, on average, to train a uniformed airman each year versus $2,213 for a GS-13 employee.

But the study stressed the department’s inattention to civilian employee development isn’t just about money. The problems, the board said, are cultural as well.

Throughout the department, the mindset has tended toward hiring someone to fill a specific role whenever a vacancy arises, and assuming they’ll do roughly the same thing until they’re ready to retire or quit. By contrast, the board noted, the private sector has moved toward models in which they assume every new employee will gain new skills and move to new positions throughout their careers.

“This talent management is essential to meeting current and future requirements for the workforce, particularly to realize technology-related initiatives and boost employee retention. Faster changing technology means employee skills must evolve while employed, and companies realize the need to support, incentivize, and manage that skill evolution and development,” according to the report. “Many of the private sector’s largest and most successful companies have announced investments in talent management: Accenture is spending nearly $1 billion annually to retrain its workers and committed to retraining almost every employee at risk of losing a job to automation; PwC committed $3 billion to upskill all 275,000 of its employees, and Amazon has invested $700 million in retraining one-third of its U.S. workforce to help employees in non-technical roles move into more technical IT roles.”

But the board thinks some of the biggest challenges are organizational ones. Since DoD’s hiring and management practices are highly decentralized — spread throughout the Defense agencies and military services — it’s one of the few public or private sector organizations that does not have a Chief Human Capital Officer helping to guide workforce decisions within the C suite.

DoD does have a “de facto” CHCO for civilians: the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for civilian personnel policy. But the study argues that person — no matter how hard he or she tries — does not have sufficient stature in the Pentagon bureaucracy to make real change. And while DoD does have an undersecretary position for overall personnel and readiness matters, civilian career management issues tend to get crowded out by the undersecretary’s other priorities.

“[The board] observes and appreciates the arduous task of USD(P&R) to oversee an organization of  approximately 25 subordinate organizations with diverse and distinct problem sets. Delegation of responsibility is understandable given the basket of HR and readiness functions to oversee, from voting, to health care, to language training, to the commissaries,” the board wrote. “However, that delegation has left the de facto CHCO too junior to participate in the deputy secretary of Defense’s corporate decision-making forums.”

And even the existing undersecretary position, with all of its other responsibilities, doesn’t have a stellar record of consistent leadership. There have been 20 different officials serving in the job over the past dozen years — almost all of them on a short-term, acting basis.

As one way to solve the organizational problems, the board suggests that Congress create a new undersecretary position dedicated exclusively to civilian talent management.

“Through our interviews, when asked what they would change if they were ‘SECDEF for a day,’ one senior [P&R] official summed up the sentiment from OSD’s perspective, stating, ‘I just want someone to listen to me. We need leadership and the services to respect our office.’ This was not a slam against DoD leadership, rather, it was an acknowledgment that without strong support from the top, nothing was likely to change. But everyone understood senior leaders have large issues on their plates,” the board wrote.

Elevating civilian talent management in the leadership structure could also have the side benefit of helping DoD collect and analyze data about its existing civilian workforce and its future needs. In the aggregate, those kinds of datasets simply don’t exist today, the board found, at least not with the sort of granularity the department needs to conduct effective workforce planning.

That’s largely because none of the military services and Defense agencies’ existing personnel systems communicate with one another.

Sometime in the next year-and-a-half, the department plans to finally stand up a central database called the Defense Civilian Human Resources Management System. But even DCHRMS won’t hold information about employees’ skills or other key elements of personnel data.

The board said the absence of a “data lake” about DoD’s existing talent and future workforce demands is a giant blind spot.

“How many artificial intelligence engineers will we need in 2032? How many do we have today? How many vacancies do we have for AI engineers? Will we meet our fill-rate goal? Who do we have with project management experience and a logistics and machine-learning background? Does anyone have similar skills that we should target for opportunities to develop? How are we ensuring a steady supply of employees ready to lead our toughest positions? What impact would result from an increase in budget allocations to programs that incentivize participation in upskilling? These talent management questions are impossible to answer right now,” the board wrote.

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