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Civil service reform: Start with IT/cyber

Jul. 17, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By RON SANDERS   |   Comments
Excellence in Government
Dr. Ronald Sanders is a vice-president and fellow at Booz Allen Hamilton. (Colin Kelly / Gannett Government Media Co.)

A few months ago, the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton published a comprehensive, framework for a 21st century civil service system, and while it generated some media interest and even a congressional hearing, it’s largely faded into the background, supplanted by more dramatic headlines focusing on the failures and foibles of a few civil servants. While many (including me) have argued that those foibles help make the case for broader reform, so far no one has picked up the torch, probably because the prospect of changing the personnel rules covering over a million federal employees is just too daunting in today’s political environment. So where do we go from here?

I think it’s time to do something more incremental…not agency-by-agency, as we’ve done in the past (that’s what got us to today’s balkanized state of affairs), but rather by occupation. I would offer up the federal government’s IT/cyber workforce as the ideal first candidate. Let’s take that reasonably well-defined, horizontal slice of the federal workforce—all of the thousands of programmers, systems architects, cybersecurity experts, database administrators, across every agency in the federal enterprise—and modernize the way we hire them, classify them, pay them, promote them, and hold them accountable. There’s a way to do all that without an act of Congress, with authorities that are on the books today.

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First, the business case for doing so: seven reasons why the government’s IT/cyber workforce should be the first increment of reform.

Reason 1: The federal government’s IT/cyber workforce is truly mission-critical. Of all the so-called mission critical occupations identified by OPM, this one actually merits the label. There are few that would argue that the current (and looming) IT/cyber talent gap has implications for our national security, as well as our ability to remain at the top of the global economy. We also know the federal government suffers from a talent gap—the demand for IT/cyber skills will continue to outstrip supply, and when you factor in the fact that the federal government can only hire security-clearable US citizens from a global labor pool that is increasingly foreign-born, the picture becomes even bleaker. This is a problem we simply cannot afford to ignore.

Reason 2: Agencies can’t keep pace with a hypercompetitive IT/cyber labor market. We saw this in the 1990’s, and again in the in the mid-2000’s. The labor market for IT/cyber skills is a leading indicator of economic growth; it’s competitive even in a struggling economy, but it goes on steroids when the economy is booming. While we’re not quite there yet, it’s coming (especially for these skill sets), and the federal government is not well positioned to meet that competition. A recent RAND report said that all this will eventually go away—current IT skill shortages will drive up salaries, which will eventually attract more entrants to the field, increase labor supply, and bring salaries back into equilibrium—easy for an economist to say, but that may take years. In the meantime, the federal government’s ability to meet and match those spiraling salaries will continue to be hand-cuffed by mid-20th century personnel rules.

Reason 3: The federal government is losing the war for high-end IT talent. The brutal reality is that the federal government simply cannot compete for the best and brightest IT/cyber talent…and yet we should settle for no less. Critics will argue that when an agency posts a GS-2210 vacancy announcement, it typically attracts hundreds of applicants. That’s true, but quantity does not equal quality, especially in IT/cyber. Just ask any federal CIO. They will tell you that of all those hundreds of “basically qualified” applicants, most CIOs are not seeing very many from the top-tier IT schools or cutting-edge IT firms. The situation is worse for relatively scarce, very high-end computer scientists and engineers, and it worsens with every headline. Those headlines just add more fodder for the talent war, and without sweeping government personnel reforms, the private sector will continue to win IT (pun intended). If we’re not careful, the only way most federal agencies will be able to get access to that talent will be to ‘rent’ it.

Reason 4: Even within the federal government, the playing field is tilted. As we pointed out in the Partnership report, the civil service system has become balkanized, with a few ‘haves’ (agencies with substantial personnel flexibilities, most of them with three-letter initials like NSA) and a whole bunch of ‘have-nots’ that can’t compete with them…or the private sector. While many of the ‘haves’ can leverage a mission that is especially compelling to IT/cyber pros, more importantly, they also have the personnel flexibilities that put title 5 to shame…and enable them to back up the recruiting pitch. For example, most are in the ‘excepted’ civil service, and that means fast hiring, two-year trial periods, no time-in-grade limitations, and pay-setting flexibility, both occupational and individual. Thus, when NSA and DHS go after the same computer scientist, NSA will likely win—that is, unless Google is recruiting! Bottom line: At the very least, the federal playing field needs to be leveled…at the highest common denominator.

Reason 5: There’s strong congressional support to do something. The good news is that Congress seems anxious to help solve the problem. There are several pending pieces of legislation that attempt to do so—most center on giving NSA-like personnel flexibilities to other parts of the federal government, and while those efforts are well-intentioned (and much appreciated), every attempt to incrementally expand the list of ‘haves’ invariably leaves some very important ‘have-nots’ behind. For example, while there’s legislation that would give USCYBERCOM flexibilities similar to NSA, it leaves their Central Maryland neighbors, DISA and the Defense Cyber Crimes Center, on the outside looking in. That’s problematic. The cyber threat knows no boundaries, and those federal agencies that are left behind become potential weak links in our perimeter defense. Piecemeal legislative fixes may not even be necessary (see Reason Number 6 below), but the fact that there seems to be bipartisan support for dealing with the government’s IT/cyber talent gap means that Congress will likely be supportive.

Reason 6: It won’t take an act of Congress. All the authorities the federal government needs are already on the books…indeed, some have already been exercised, but not in a systemic way. This may be the single biggest advantage to leveraging the IT/cyber workforce as the first increment in civil service reform—no major legislation is necessary. It starts by leveraging existing ‘micro-level’ reforms like direct hire authority, which OPM has already granted for select IT/cyber occupations, although it’s being applied in very traditional (that is, suboptimal) ways. Those are necessary but not sufficient. We need comprehensive, systemic reforms like the ones we suggested in the Partnership report.

Fortuitously, it just so happens that there’s a never-before-used provision of title 5 that gives OPM all the statutory authority it needs…if the government chooses to exercise it. 5 USC Section 5392 is entitled “Establishment of Special Occupational Pay Systems” and provides that “The President's pay agent (basically OPM and OMB) may establish a special classification and pay system for a particular occupation, if the pay agent determines that ‘for reasons of good administration’ that occupation should not be classified or paid” under current civil service rules.

That takes care of classification and pay, perhaps the two most critical shortfalls in the current system, but OPM also has the administrative authority to provide additional flexibilities, all as part of a more systemic strategy to help the federal government recruit and retain IT/cyber talent. For example, it could place IT/cyber occupations in the ‘excepted’ civil service, giving agencies the authority to do things like waive archaic time-in-grade requirements for promotion (and use achievement instead!), or use a two-year trail period to determine a candidate’s suitability.

Taken together, these various existing authorities—if exercised—give the federal government almost all the human capital flexibility it needs to compete for IT/cyber talent. And while the exercise of some of those authorities may be subject to a public hearing and notice, and/or congressional oversight, the fact of the matter is that we could ‘reform’ the civil service system, at least with respect to the relatively well-defined and inarguably mission-critical occupations that comprise the federal government’s IT/cyber workforce…all without an act of Congress.

Reason 7: A strong functional community exists and is ready to lead…use it! Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the management infrastructure is already in place to make this a success. The federal CIO Council is among the strongest of the CXOs, has shown the most interest and commitment to functional workforce issues, and (if the CIOs I talk to are any guide), ready and willing to lead the charge. And with all due respect, while my former colleagues at OPM and the federal CHCO Council need to be at their side, doing everything they can to enable them, it needs to be driven by those who are actually responsible for the civil servants who develop, deploy, and defend our critical information systems and networks.

While it pains me to say it, this approach may be the only way we’ll ever see systemic, enterprise-wide changes to our antique civil service system. In that regard, think of the civil service system as a collection of dominos, all lined up neatly in a row. The domino theory says that if you can just get the first one to tip over, the rest will follow. In my view, the government’s IT/cyber workforce is the best, first domino…it has the potential to tip the system, but even if the rest of the civil service reform dominoes don’t fall, one that contributes to a ‘second-to-none’ IT/cyber workforce is still a worthy goal.

So why don’t we just do it?

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