The talent gap in the federal government has been a mainstay of the Government Accountability Office's High-Risk List since 2001, but the Trump administration's federal hiring freeze helped add a new shine to the issue for the House Oversight Committee.

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In a Feb. 15 hearing examining the GAO's biennial tally of federal programs vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement, Democrats zeroed in on the White House's hiring freeze to flog it as a detriment to what ails the federal government.

"A hiring freeze could hamstring the ability of agencies to address the needs of the American citizens, businesses and consumers," Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said.

"As one who represents a lot of employees at Social Security, I hear over and over again where the lack of employees has made it so much more difficult for people to do their jobs."

Comptroller General Gene Dodaro seemed inclined to agree, citing both the government’s continued skills gap and the GAO’s research of previous freezes.

"We’ve looked at hiring freezes in the past by prior administrations, and they haven’t proven to be effective in either reducing costs and they cause some problems if they are in effect for a long period of time," he said.

The Trump administration’s freeze is set to expire after 90 days, during which time the Office of Management and Budget is tasked with rolling out a plan to reduce the federal workforce through the attrition of retiring federal workers.

The freeze includes a number of exemptions, including for national security and public safety roles, but the GAO concluded those didn’t include a number of positions that already had increasing skills gap problems, like auditors.

Dodaro said that the issue of the scope doesn’t center on the number of employees the federal government has, but the scale of job responsibilities they carry out.

"We know there are already there are skill gaps," he said. "You mentioned in your opening statement Social Security. [There’s also] cybersecurity, acquisition workforce, oil and gas management, petroleum engineers — a number of areas on our High Risk List have human capital [problems] — nurses at the VA. There’s a lot of areas.

"If you want to reduce the number of federal employees, in my opinion, you have to reduce the function those employees are doing. If you just eliminate the people but keep all of the functions, you are going to have a problem."

The GAO added three new items to the High Risk List for 2017:

  • Improving management of federal programs that serve Native American tribes and their members
  • The cost of the government’s environmental liabilities, including military installations and nuclear weapon production facilities
  • The cost of the 2020 census, which is projected to be $18 billion

Dodaro called for better leadership in administering the services provided to Native Americans and said he would be meeting with the new Secretary of the Interior to discuss ways to improve them.

The government’s environmental liability for fiscal 2016 is estimated to be $447 billion, GAO said, more than double the amount in 1997, prompting the agency to call for a more "risk-informed approach" to cleanup funding.

The upcoming census is projected to eclipse 2010’s mark as the costliest in history, largely because of a combination of the strictures of traditional costs and the Census Bureau’s anticipated rollout of new IT solutions. GAO called for more cost-effective measures to tackle the census’ growing cost.