Some federal employees are starting to see job functions change and the need to learn new skill sets as the government pushes to increase the use of data in its missions.

The General Services Administration is seeing shifts in employees’ roles, said GSA Chief Data Officer Kris Rowley. Speaking at the Professional Services Council Tech Trends conference Sept. 16, he said that GSA data practitioners are helping agency’s executives with their jobs by posting data analysis on a common GSA platform, which Rowley said is a "good disruptive mentality.”

But the problem, he said, is the mid-level managers, who are skipped over in the process, don’t feel the same way. The disruption is causing the reevaluation of manager roles and the need for employees to be data literate.

“If I’m at that senior manager role and I have a data team, what is the role of the person managing that team?” Rowley said. “And that’s something that we’re going to see change over the next couple of years.”

He added, “What we really need them to do now is look at what are the types of algorithms and methodologies being applied to this data ... what types of prediction is it showing, and with your years of experience, is there anything missing from this type of analysis and recommendation? This is a different work stream for the manager level and we’re stating to see this evolve now.”

A new reskilling program from OMB?

In the last few years, the Office of Management and Budget has pushed various initiatives for federal agencies to embrace cloud computing, data and other emerging technologies. But the four-year timeline of potential administration changes and subsequent reprioritization presents challenges to ultimate program success.

Margaret Weichert, OMB’s deputy director for management, broke down the challenges that the government’s digital push faces, saying that she’s never been apart of a transformation agenda “even remotely possible in less than three years.” And that was in the private sector.

“So in federal government, we’re looking at things that are probably going to be, optimistically, four- to six-year timelines for long-term change,” Weichert said. “And guess what? The political cycle doesn’t run on that time frame. By the time we get an administration in place and organized around an agenda, a year has gone by. And then by the time you’re really humming, two years have gone by.”

Weichert also discussed the need for investment in human capital through reskilling and training, a perpetual problem discussed by federal officials when talking about modernization. OMB is just days away from graduating its second class of a cybersecurity retraining program.

Weichert also said that lack of action from Congress is to blame for a lack of more robust reskilling and training programs, noting that lawmakers hasn’t appropriated necessary funds to develop the “most productive workforce of the 21st century.”

“We don’t have tools for that,” Weichert said. “We’ve attempted in several of the president’s budgets to try different, more innovative ways to ... reinvest in training and skills development. None of those have been taken up by Congress and so we’ll come up with more ideas."

OMB has worked to come up with new ideas through its Government Effectiveness Advanced Research (GEAR) Center challenge, meant to help the government find new ways to innovate. The GEAR challenge winners were announced Sept. 10, with proposals that could help the government in both cybersecurity and data analytics. Like with cybersecurity, Weichert hinted that there could be a data reskilling program based on the GEAR results.

“We got a lot of opportunities in the cyber reskilling space. We’re going to be doing similar things around data and other technology-type careers,” Weichert said.

The GEAR results provided OMB with some “seeds of good ideas” but it hasn’t “fully formed [its] ideas on the data front.”

“We definitely are looking and a couple of the challenge winners have very interesting ideas about how to do work around data,” Weichert said. “I think one of the ones that I thought was really, really interesting was looking at how individuals with different skill sets from the autistic community are actually amazing data analysts when it comes to the cyber realm. And actually leveraging that skill set, I think, was a really interesting human-centered construct.”

Acquisition in the 21st century

Weichert also said that the government needs to be more “innovative” in how it approaches acquisitions. Michael Wooten, administrator of OMB’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said he would like to see changes to the acquisition process to help it move faster. At the top of his list, he wants an acquisition workforce with different skill sets.

“Not just the skills that rely on following flow chart-able decisions that they’re able to glean from the FAR [federal acquisition regulations]. That’s [a] very risk-averse approach,” Wooten said. “I want them to be able get that information very quickly and then spend more of their time on making the business judgments to make the right decisions.”

Wooten spent much of his speech talking about the race to develop artificial intelligence and ensuring that “our AI acquisition ... is not outpaced by our near peers.”

“It’s not the bigger dog in the fight, but it is the faster dog,” Wooten said.

Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.

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