Improving the federal hiring process, part 1

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Who wants to work for the government? Apparently not enough people. One reason might be the federal government’s poor record at workforce planning and development, and its hiring process. A cluster of coalitions has urged leading members of Congress to do something about federal workforce issues. Among them, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. For more, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the commission vice chairman and former deputy Defense secretary, Bob Work. Read the commission’s full letter here.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Work Good to have you on.

Bob Work: It’s great to be here, Tom.

Tom Temin: Tell us what you’re telling, I guess, the leaders of the Armed Services committees who would write the 2021 Defense authorization bill, you want some things right in the upcoming bill, don’t you?

Bob Work: Yes, we do. It happens that Congress has established three different commissions and they’re going simultaneously. One is the commission I serve on with Eric Schmidt as the chair and 13 other really smart commissioners, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. Then there is the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, which looks at issues in cyber warfare, cyber defense, etc. And then the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service. Now all three of us, the executive directors of all three of the commissions started talking with each other — and it soon became apparent that one of the key issues is that we are really worried about the lack of talent in artificial intelligence and cyber issues. And we all agreed we needed to address it. And then the National Commission on Public Service and Military and National service said, hey we aren’t getting enough of our young citizens to join the government. So together we decided to write a letter to the chairman and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committee and said, look this is an area where all three of us workforce, talent, management is an area where all three of the commissions kind of came to similar conclusions and we urge them to try to take a look at these recommendations and start putting them into the bills.

Tom Temin: And one of the things you’re urging is greater use of existing authorities. And as we know, there’s more than 100 different authorities besides the standard merit hire that federal managers can use to get someone in. So what could a law do that would encourage them to use what they already have in law?

Bob Work: Well, it’s great question. And essentially, let me speak just for the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence because each of us had specific recommendations. But I’ll give you an example from our commission’s perspective. And we broke this into two different buckets. One is we want to attract more talent into the government. So we have a program called the Cyber Excepted Service (CES), and it’s been one of the most effective tools for bringing cyber professionals into the Department of Defense. So what we recommend is expand that program which is already successful to include AI practitioners. So that’s one way we could do. It’s something that’s already there. The other one is called a pathways internship program. It has the potential become a very effective hiring pipeline. But there are some structural issues that reduce the quality of the interns and the numbers that actually finally convert to government employment. We wanted to expand the Cyber Corps Scholarship for Service also to include students for AI. That’s another very successful program that we wanted to expand. And then we wanted to increase fellowships and partnerships with industry to improve the transfer of knowledge and experience from the private sector. So that’s one big way to attract people, take things that are already in existence or, you know, tweak them or expand them, and hopefully, we’ll be able to get more. But we also have a feeling that there’s a lot of talent in the government that we just are unaware of. So for example, we recommended measuring and incentivizing program efficiency, having a programming proficiency test, just like foreign language tests, that would tell us whether young people in the government really have a talent for programming. And then we would be able to identify them and hopefully use them in a better manner. In a similar way, we asked to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, ASVAB, which every single young man or woman who wants to join the service has to take, and include a new section on computational thinking. And computational thinking is one of those innate skills that allows you to really understand or become very proficient in programming. So in addition to attracting more people in we want to identify the folks who are already coming in or in the government and utilize them better.

Tom Temin: And a lot of people calling for civil service reform have gone further to say that maybe Congress should really look at rewriting title five of the civil service of the whole code and maybe attacking it from that level. Do you think that’s necessary? Or can all of these authorities can they exist along with title five?

Bob Work: I think it should definitely be considered. I mean, we’re in a technological tsunami, and the government needs to increase its talent across the board in a variety of technological subjects, artificial intelligence, cyber, 5g, quantum science, you name it. And we want all three of the committees say the government needs to get more serious on attracting this talent, managing the talent and retaining the talent. We want to become the world class, government, technological workforce. So there are a lot of things that keep us from attracting young folks in. Sometimes we’ve heard many, many stories of young kids who can’t get an offer for work for six months, and they’re just not going to wait around to get this offer. We need to streamline the way we bring people in with an eye towards attracting the best talent we possibly can get.

Tom Temin: And let me just ask you a devil’s advocate question. A lot of this talent exists in industry, such as at Google and Alphabet to one of your partners on that commission. Can’t the government simply continue to buy what it needs from industry as a service rather than taking on all of these types of people on the payroll?

Bob Work: Well, the government and the Department of Defense in particular, are trying everything they can to get closer and to exploit the enormous amount of technological innovation that’s going on in our private sector. That will continue and I think expand, but we need people in the government that can oversee a program for example, on a system that employs artificial intelligence. We can’t rely on the commercial sector for everything. So we need a good balance between expertise in the government and expertise in the private sector and figure out a best way to exploit both.

Tom Temin: And do you see this as something that can be done or supervised centrally, such as through an OPM, whatever the fate of that might be? Or is this something that really needs to be diffused at the decision level throughout the federal bureaucracy?

Bob Work: That’s a question that we’re debating within our commission. And I assume the other commissions are too. What would be the best way forward? There are pros and cons on each approach. The centralized approach allows you to shift incase say there’s a cyber attack on the United States. And if you had a very broad understanding of what you had in the government, you would be able to shift assets to go after the problem at hand. But then, within each of the agencies, we want each of the agencies to become skilled. We want the Department of Energy to have skilled technologist. We want the Department of Commerce and the Department of Transportation, and generally those type of cabinet level departments would prefer to have a little bit more flexibility and autonomy in the way they manage their own talent. So I think this is a debate that is still going on. And I know for our commission, we haven’t decided what we want to recommend yet.

Tom Temin: And I just have one other question for you about the DoD, I’ve been following this now for just about 30 years. And I remember the big shift away from having uniforms, to programming, to where it was almost all outsourced by all of the military services. And now they are bringing back programming, particularly the Air Force. Do you see in general, more programming coding the hard day to day knocking out of lines of code done by federal employees at some point?

Bob Work: Yes, absolutely. I mean, the Air Force is leading the way. In fact, their senior acquisition executive Will Roper, he’s the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for research and development and acquisition, he often describes that he wants to change the Air Force into a software organization. As we move into the new way of making software and programming, dev-sec ops, development and security ops, where you’re doing it in parallel, rather than a waterfall where you know, you work, you work, you work, you work, you work, you get a million lines of code, then you test it and you say, oh my gosh, I’ve got a problem. Now what you do is you build a little in the programming and you test and you test your security as you go along. And it’s a parallel process, much, much more flexible. And what the Air Force is doing is putting together these little programming teams for individual problems. And they’re starting to sprout up around the Air Force and they’re using a lot of talent that’s already in the Air Force, which is one of the reasons why we said, look, let’s measure programming proficiency of people who are already in the service. And let’s test computational thinking of people who have already volunteered for national service so that we have a better sense on the talent we have and use that talent for military problems.

Tom Temin: And I guess we should also make sure all of those coders document what they do for the people that come after.

Bob Work: Oh, yeah, absolutely. You know, this is a trial and error thing. The This is an exciting time, really, for the Department of Defense and for other agencies that are committed to a digital transformation. And for young people who want to work on hard problems. I mean, there’s no harder problems than national security problems, and problems in the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture. I mean, these are big national level problems. And so, building upon what we learned is just part of the game. So it’s exciting.

Tom Temin: Bob Work his former Deputy Defense Secretary now vice chairman of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. Thanks so much for joining me.

Bob Work: Thank you, Tom. And I just wish everyone who’s listening, please be safe.

Read the commission’s full letter.