At least 70 percent of federal employees say their agencies face critical skills gaps, and 29 percent say opportunities for advancement within government are merit-based.
That’s according to a recent Government Business Council and Management Concepts survey of 337 current federal employees. And about 45 percent of federal employees said they doubt their agency’s ability to maintain productivity throughout the presidential transition, the survey found.
Only 8 percent of federal employees expressed full confidence in their agencies’ talent management systems.
But current and former human capital management experts said they’re not necessarily surprised by the results.
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And perhaps a series of budget cuts, an upcoming government reorganization effort and a temporary hiring freeze followed by a call from the Office of Management and Budget to reduce the size of the federal workforce through attrition could be the push agencies need to address these longstanding challenges.
“This is not the first time that people have experienced a hiring freeze,” said Terry Gerton, president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration. “But there is a sense that this one is different in the way that it may be tied to serious restructuring and some other sort of innovation. As people are eyeing the landscape and trying to figure out what to do, that this really is a point where people are going ‘We are going to have to be serious.'”
In the President’s fiscal 2018 budget blueprint, the White House indicated that budget and workforce cuts are “complementary” and will be tied to the executive order President Donald Trump signed several weeks ago asking that agencies prepare plans to reorganize and consolidate their programs, offices and resources.
The Office of Personnel Management is telling agencies to begin preparations for these initiatives sooner rather than later, and though neither the White House nor OPM explicitly detailed the specifics, also suggested alternatives to across-the-board personnel cuts.
“We have to teach people how to manage and lead in an austere environment,” Gerton said. “If we don’t have good managers and leaders, we’re not going to have a talent development program and we’re not going to be able to meet the objectives that we have.”
Agencies that handle talent management well don’t punt these challenges to their human resources staff to handle, she said. Rather, it’s the organizations whose leadership embraces and owns these issues that succeed.
“In an environment where your big human capital management tool is attrition, how do you make sure that you’re taking care of your workforce, that you’re growing the right people, that you’re convincing the people you want to have stay, actually stay,” Gerton said.
Agency human capital experts, who spoke March 28 at a NAPA talent management event in Washington, said they’re using a variety of methods to engage their workforce, from internal training sessions and mentoring to leadership development courses.
“You shouldn’t just be sitting around waiting for the next piece of guidance,” Gerton said. “You should be active in thinking about what your current management strategies are, what skills you’re after. If you can’t hire them, how do you train the workforce that you have, and how do you incentivize the people you want to stay — those talented people who could maybe switch skills to do it?”
The possibility of attrition should force some agencies to take a hard look at the programs and offices that they no longer need to free up personnel to begin the work that’s truly mission critical, human capital experts said.
Succession planning and talent management are not necessarily new challenges. Sally Jaggar, a NAPA senior adviser and former Government Accountability Office executive, has more than 20 years of human capital management experience. Throughout those 20 years, she’s heard agencies struggle with the same questions and come to similar conclusions about the strategies they should implement to improve talent management. But Jaggar said that often, those strategies don’t get implemented.
“The question is, why are you not doing it?” she said. “How many reports do you need to read? How many great studies are there that are going to tell you great techniques? But we aren’t doing them. That is the really big question to ask.”
Agencies have experienced hiring freezes in the 1980s, which the Government Accountability Office said hindered departments’ ability to effectively manage the federal workforce.
But perhaps there’s enough momentum that could push agency leaders to begin answering those longstanding questions, human capital experts said.
After all, OPM addressed its recent “workforce reshaping” guide to agency heads and human resources managers.
“There may be enough different pieces in the atmosphere now to say, ‘We really do need to get serious about doing something,'” Gerton said. “Because if we don’t, we’re going to miss a tremendous opportunity and be in real trouble in the future.”