There are dozens of programs for federal employees and industry or academics to exchange roles. The Defense Department has the cyber and IT exchange program. The Homeland Security Department has the loaned executive program. The Office of Personnel Management runs the personnel mobility program.
A 2013 report from the Institute from Defense Analyses listed at least 15 such programs across the government.
It seems like every time Congress sneezed, another exchange program got its wings.
And on paper, these programs make a lot of sense. Federal employees gain a critical understanding of the private sector or academia. They also act as ambassadors so private sector employees can put a name and a face on what the federal government does for them day in and day out.
When industry or academia scholars come into government, they receive a first-hand look at how the government sausage is made. They also bring fresh eyes to systemic challenges and are part of a continuous learning cycle that many federal employees enjoy.
And then there are intragovernmental exchange programs like the one the departments of Defense and State agreed to take part in nearly a decade ago.
Altogether, these exchange programs should be among the most valuable experiences employees from the public and private sector can have.
“By cross-pollinating best practices, public-private talent exchanges can be an effective strategy for bolstering the federal workforce and enabling it to adapt to the vanguard of the private sector, such as rapidly evolving technologies and new management practices,” stated a September 2021 report by EY and the Partnership for Public Service. “Talent exchanges may be even more important for the government of the future and a new generation of civil servants who are digital natives and seek jobs that offer opportunities for collaboration and professional growth.”
Unfortunately, many of these exchange programs have fallen flat.
“The reality is the mission of the federal government is accomplished by a partnership of federal employees, contractors and academia, so making it easier for entities to shift employees in and out and create a better flow is advantageous for everyone,” said Jeri Buchholz, a strategic advisor for the Bolden Group and a former chief human capital officer for NASA. “A lot of people out there would love to spend a year or two in public service but not give up their employer. But the old rules, laws and ways of thinking is getting in the way of making forward progress.”
Falling short of expectations
A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) once again underscored the challenges with exchange programs.
GAO looked at the personnel mobility program that lets agencies bring in expertise from non-profits, state and local government agencies and academia in critical areas like IT, cybersecurity and other scientific technical areas. Auditors found that NASA, the Defense Department, the General Services Administration and the Energy Department took minimal advantage of the program because industry exchange of the program’s limitations.
Buchholz said while NASA took advantage of the program over the years more so than most agencies, it wasn’t easy.
“You can only participate with non-profit or not for profit organizations and in the modern world where the skills federal agencies want to bring in fall into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) there are not a lot of organizations you can do exchange agreements with except for universities,” she said. “This authority was created back when the majority of this type of work was done by federal government employees. And that is no longer the case.”
The other issue Buchholz highlighted as a barrier was the cost of travel. If a federal employee is spending two years working for another organization, their home agency has to foot their travel bill, meaning hotels or apartments and other costs. But if it’s less than one year, then the agency doesn’t pay and that is a cost the employee or the host company must bear.
Either way, Buchholz said it’s takes major budget planning to engage in the program.
52 year old law stands in the way
Buchholz contended the law governing these exchange programs, the Intergovernmental Personnel Act of 1970, needs to be updated to let for-profit entities to take part, given just how different agencies and industry are today than they were more than 50 years ago.
“If we would add for-profit companies, there are some challenges, but you almost never get to point that it’s a problem,” she said. “Just like with non-profit employees, they shouldn’t be involved in any procurements so neither would an employee of a for-profit company. And for federal employees going to a for-profit company for a year or so, there is a cooling off period where they can’t interact with that company for two years. Those kinds of things happen all the time when people take permanent jobs outside of government and then return to government late on. The same set of rules apply.”
The report from EY and the Partnership came to a similar conclusion that the 1970 law needs updating.
“Agencies with exchange authorities should continue to share staff with the private sector, to document and build on what they learn through individual exchanges, and to refine exchange programs to maximize the benefits for all involved,” the report concluded. “Furthermore, lawmakers should be open to working with agencies to develop talent exchange authorities that enable and encourage ethical and productive cross-sector collaborations — and Congress should provide funding to current and new exchange programs to cultivate their success.”
With all of the Biden administration’s focus on reinvigorating the federal workforce, there is no reason why Congress and the White House could push through changes to make these programs as valuable in real life as they are on paper.