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Editorial: Mend federal human capital

Sep. 15, 2013 - 01:29PM   |  
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Executive branch managers — and the lawmakers who oversee them — long have been asleep at the switch when it comes to managing and developing the government’s human capital.

Programs to recruit, train, educate, chart career paths, fill leadership posts, manage performance, map out needed skills for the future, assess skills and the like, have been ineffective at best and nonexistent at worst at most agencies.

The problem now is reaching crisis proportions for three reasons.

First is that the government confronts far more complex challenges today than ever before: health care reform, dire financial challenges, global insecurity, climate change, terrorism, energy and food security, cyber security and a host of other socio-economic challenges. These problems require collaborative, innovative and often highly specialized and technical solutions. Such solutions depend on the government having the right people with the right skills.

Second, the federal workforce demographic is changing fast, and not for the better. Retirement-eligible employees, many of whom are in critical leadership posts and possess much experience and deep skill sets, are leaving in larger numbers than ever. That’s not a bad thing so long as there are mid-level feds prepped and ready to fill those positions. But in many cases, they are not. Severe cuts to training and development programs in recent years have aggravated the problem. Worst of all, agencies are having problems recruiting and keeping entry-level employees with needed skills.

Third, today’s poisonous political climate has only worsened the problem. Effective federal management and governance is sabotaged by the lack of predictable budgets and the stupid policy of sequestration. Lawmakers are more interested in exploiting scandals and bad-mouthing government employees for political gain than ensuring that the executive branch is solving the nation’s problems. The result is that feds are heading for the exits and a new generation of American college graduates has understandably little interest in public service.

A new report by the Professional Services Council, called “From Crisis to Opportunity,” is the latest alarm bell for policy makers that dramatic changes in federal human capital planning and management are needed fast. The report makes a compelling case that federal staffs in the critical fields of information technology and acquisition are especially challenged by inexperience, lack of training, skills gaps and poor leadership and management.

The PSC report offers numerous recommendations — many of which require no legislation to be passed — for improving the way agency leaders and program managers approach the problem. They include everything from fostering greater collaboration among stakeholders and a greater focus on program outcomes to centralizing management oversight of the acquisition workforce at the Office of Management and Budget.

Given that the IT and acquisition career fields are so vital in the government’s ability to accomplish its missions, it is important that policy makers take this problem seriously.

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