Many of the federal government’s most critical challenges are rooted in skills shortages, according to the Government Accountability Office’s 2021 High Risk List, released March 2.

“While [the Office of Personnel Management] has established an agency priority goal for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 to support agencies’ efforts to address skills gaps, mission-critical skills gaps are a root cause in high-risk areas across the government. Of the 35 other high-risk areas, skills gaps played a significant role in 22 areas.”

Human capital management has been on the High Risk List since 2001, and most of the criteria for addressing the problem are currently only partially met or not met at all.

In terms of leadership commitment to addressing workforce gaps, the federal government has been handicapped over the last couple of years due to consistently changing leadership at OPM, with three different directors of the agency and only one confirmed by the Senate.

According to the report, this leadership turnover meant that the government as a whole “lacked the attention from the highest levels needed to address longstanding and emerging skills gaps.”

The report also found that while OPM has made progress on certain types of workforce support programs — supporting the work of Federal Agency Skills Teams, making tools available to agencies to mitigate their skills gaps and establishing metrics to monitor the success of such programs — the agency had not yet taken other actions that were necessary to addressing the problem.

For example, OPM has placed special focus on closing skills gaps in cybersecurity across the federal government, but has not given similar attention to the other science, technology, math and engineering fields that are in equally high demand at many agencies.

Without such employees, agencies cannot address many of the other high-risk issues they face, such as improving IT systems or securing critical infrastructure.

The report noted that the Department of Defense needed to improve its financial management, but struggled to do so because of insufficient workforce planning and a hard time competing with the private sector for financial management talent.

“The bottom line of this year’s High Risk Update is that we found that most of the ratings for the high-risk areas have remained unchanged,” said GAO’s Managing Director for Strategic Issues Chris Mihm in an agency podcast.

“And, in fact, some of them regressed. Now, some of them did improve. We think that overall that there needs to be much more attention and top leadership attention to these high risk areas.”

The High Risk Report, issued by GAO every two years, is designed to give the new Congress a concrete view of the areas that need the most attention and change to reduce waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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