The Government Accountability Office says a program that allows federal agencies to bring in temporary non-federal personnel can help solve big problems, but use of the program remains limited.

The personnel mobility program allows federal agencies to temporarily bring in outside workers to address critical skills gaps. A Jan. 27 GAO report notes that while some agencies have found success with the program, several factors prevent it from being used more widely.

Officials who talked to GAO said the program helps them address highly technical skill gaps with administrative ease and flexibility. In its review of four agencies — Defense, Energy, the General Services Administration and NASA — the government watchdog found the program helped those organizations “bring top scientists, researchers, and professors into the federal government to lead complex and highly technical projects and address emerging issues.”

At the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for example, the government was able to bring in an outside expert to lead artificial intelligence programs. That program manager managed a number of research and development efforts, DARPA officials noted, leading to “major innovations in voice recognition technology.”

And at the Department of Energy, the Office of Fossil Energy was able to bring in someone to manage its research on new technology that could lower carbon emissions. That individual provided executive and managerial guidance while interacting with lawmakers, the administration and the public on policy.

Despite the apparent benefit of the program, it remains limited.

Of the four agencies GAO looked at, the Department of Defense was the biggest user of the program, followed by the General Services Administration. While GSA brought in 92 participants over a five-year period, the U.S. Army alone brought in 174 reported participants. In fiscal 2020, the DoD had 64 reported participants, although the department wasn’t able to determine if there were mobility program assignments at some components.

Officials told GAO there is a lack of awareness about the program. In their comments, DARPA officials added that salary restrictions make it harder to bring in the personnel they want.

The personnel mobility program also allows federal employees to temporarily join outside organizations, but use of that provision is even rarer. Agencies said they were unwilling to lose their employees’ skills and expertise for multiple years, while employees coming back to the federal government after finishing their stint at an outside organization face a number of restrictions due to conflict-of-interest statutes and intellectual property agreements.

Another challenge is the lack of clear, written guidance on what supervisory activities non-federal program participants can engage in. Over the years, the Office of Personnel Management has informally advised agencies on the appropriate supervisory activities of non-federal participants. In short, the office notes that while non-federal participants can serve as project leads and assign work, they cannot take actions like conducting performance reviews or rewarding employees. The latter actions can create a conflict of interest, the OPM notes in a letter to GAO.

GAO recommended OPM update its written guidance on how non-federal participants can engage in supervisory activities. In response to the report, OPM agreed to update its guidance and will address the issue on its hiring information policy website.

The government watchdog’s second and final recommendation is that OPM collect more data on the number of non-federal mobility program participants working with federal agencies, enabling GAO to more fully understand how widely used the program is and how effective it is.

However, the office declined to collect more data on the program, noting GAO admits “in general, agencies maintained accurate records of mobility program assignments, with some previously noted exceptions at DOD.” OPM goes on to state that establishing new reporting requirements for itself and other agencies would be burdensome, which could disincentivize further participation in the program.

For its part, GAO maintains more data is needed.

“OPM’s database lacks complete and accurate data, and likely significantly undercounts the number of non-federal participants serving in the mobility program. While selected agencies generally maintained documentation about all of their mobility program assignments, there is no process or related guidance to report non-federal participants on detail to OPM, despite OPM’s authority to request this information,” the watchdog concludes. “As a result, OPM does not have the information needed to oversee, provide guidance, and more generally promote the program’s benefits.”

Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.

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