The problem within the Federal civil service is not too many bad employees, it is an antiquated talent management system which fails to keep up with rapidly changing workforce dynamics.
A lack of robust workforce planning and training efforts has placed human capital management on the Government Accountability Office (GAO) High Risk list consistently since 2001. This problem is not new; however, the effects are becoming increasingly evident.
A focus on poor performance, public disinterest and bashing of the workforce, and bureaucratic barriers to entering the civil service leaves agencies severely unstaffed and unable to achieve objectives on behalf of the American people. Workforce gaps fuel inefficiency and a waste of taxpayer funds. Put simply, federal agencies cannot fulfill the political directives of Congress or the president without a well-trained and well-managed workforce in place to do the job. This is the predicament the federal civil service finds itself to be in.
A GAO report from last month found, nearly a decade of budget and workforce cuts led the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to leave billions of dollars in revenue uncollected last year.
Since 2011, the IRS budget has dropped by $2 billion, the agency workforce has declined by 19 percent, and enforcement personnel workforce has decreased by 27 percent.
Consequently, audits of individual filers have dropped by 40 percent. The IRS went from auditing 18 percent of corporations to just 8 percent in fiscal 2018. Thousands of refunds that would receive additional scrutiny due to errors or anomalies now go ignored due to a lack of resources. Inadequate personnel mean laws are not enforced, leaving over $400 billion due annually to the U.S. Treasury uncollected.
A pillar of the Trump administration’s agenda has been the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, but the GAO finds the IRS is without the personnel to properly implement critical areas of this legislation.
The Taxpayer First Act of 2019 rightfully directs the IRS to develop a workforce plan to accompany agency restructuring, but the personnel problem persists outside the IRS.
In September 2018, the president introduced the country’s “first cybersecurity strategy in 15 years” to integrate cyber into “all elements of national power.” But a miscategorized federal IT workforce is ill-organized for mounting global cyber threats.
Another March 2019 GAO report found that most agencies fail to correctly categorize tech-related vacant positions, at least 22 of 24 agencies assigned non-IT work codes to positions that regularly perform IT, cybersecurity, and cyber-related functions. Officials from 10 agencies, including the Department of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security, chalked this up to an error, while others blamed unclear Office of Personnel Management (OPM) guidance and the nature of the positions.
The report concludes, “Until agencies accurately categorize their positions, the agencies may not have reliable information to form a basis for effectively examining their cybersecurity workforce, improving workforce planning, and identifying their workforce roles of critical need.”
These GAO reports are just two of the five reports written in the last month calling for greater attention to workforce management in order the meet the basic mission of an agency, whether that mission be disaster recovery, clinical care for veterans and active duty personnel, or transit services.
Gaps in effective talent management leave our government at risk of failure. While that sounds hyperbolic, a January 2019 study co-published by the Senior Executives Association reveals that a diminished workforce is a primary reason the federal government ability to respond to foreign and domestic threats, disasters, and challenges is strained and potentially nonexistent.
The study notes, “Contracts and grants have filled part of the gap, but, still, both the amount and range of work required of the federal workforce has continued to go up, just as the scope and complexity of executive branch functions have also increased. Government contractors, widely used to plug the holes in our government, can only take up so much of the slack.”
The goal is not a larger federal government but to create effective hiring mechanisms, to address critical vacancies, and to remedy the risk of the next generation not finding public service to be an attractive career option.
Policy means nothing without the right people with the right skills in agencies to implement it. If the goal is a more effective and efficient government, it is far past time for Congress to focus on this issue and hold agencies accountable for actively managing their people – improved management of programs will surely follow.
Jason Briefel is the Executive Director of the Senior Executives Association, he has served in this role for three years. Briefel serves as chief lobbyist for the Senior Executives Association and has lobbied Congress significantly on this issue.