The Trump administration’s President’s Management Agenda, which celebrated its first anniversary March 20, set many goals for the improvement of government operations, including the modernization of federal IT systems, improvements in government data practices and a transformation of acquisition processes.
But, according to three government officials who spoke at a March 20 National Academy of Public Administration event, improving the federal workforce and enticing those with the needed talent to join federal service is at the heart of many of the other improvements that the PMA seeks to make.
“As we look at the modernization activities, what we also realize is that side by side it is imperative that we ensure that the investments in the right skills for our workforce are present,” said Suzette Kent, federal chief information officer.
“Some of those barriers were that we needed the skillsets inside the agency to sustain those new technologies as we rolled them out.”
According to Margaret Weichert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget and acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, the federal workforce needs investments in areas like training and reskilling, coupled with a rethinking of the pay, benefits and schedule structure of the government as a whole.
GSA Administrator Emily Murphy agreed. “When I look at it across [the General Services Administration]’s workforce, and we’ve got about 12,000 people, I always think of it as four buckets: trying to recruit the right people; trying to retain the people we have; trying to reskill those skills that can be successful; and I’m trying to recognize them for the work that they’re doing,” she said.
But Weichert said that the toughest part may be getting changes in workforce management going in the first place.
“The people part of the agenda we think is one of the things that really is pivotal to actually making change happen,” Weichert said in a later interview with Federal Times.
“And one of the things that is unique, I think, about our approach is the integrated notion of the people component of change needs to be at the same table and integrated fully with IT, and data, and procurement, and finance and all the other elements. Frankly, it may be the toughest part, and that’s part of why I think a lot of change has not been successful.”
Because the model for the civil service is so longstanding and ingrained, people have been afraid to touch it, according to Weichert.
“Our personnel systems are utterly inflexible. They are overly … bureaucratic, and they are very, very hard to change because we manage through statute,” said Weichert.
According to ICF Senior Vice President Jeff Neal, who also spoke at the event, a divided Congress means that statute is unlikely to change, as it diminishes the chances that both chambers can come to an agreement on legislation.
And because progress in areas like IT and data is so interconnected with people, agencies are stuck remaining where they are or inventing workarounds.
“In a lot of cases, rather than dealing with the structural challenges, we would outsource the whole thing. But when we’ve done that, in some cases we’ve outsourced the very knowledge about the core systems on which we operate,” said Weichert, explaining that OPM itself has a database so old that it would be eligible for federal retirement benefits, were it a person.
“The technical knowledge about that system is not largely in the hands of the feds. We rely on contractors who have the technical expertise on these cranky, old systems.”
The Trump administration has proposed for the last couple years to change the federal pay system so that automatic increases are reduced and agency leadership has more authority to award pay increases based on performance.
And while results from the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey suggest that feds want a system that better reflects their performance, employee groups have argued that freezing federal pay during a thriving economy is not the way to go about it.
The Trump administration will soon be pursuing a study in how best to compensate and manage federal workers, but in the meantime are already pursuing popular initiatives, like the cyber reskilling academy.
“The things that we’re doing with reskilling and very specific programs that are looking at how do we get people — talented, excited individuals who are passionate about mission — into the government? How do we keep them in roles? How do we give them mobility inside the government? And particularly in the technology area, how do we ensure that we are growing them along their career path?” said Kent.
“I’d like if that was, again, standard operating procedure, not special things that we focus on.”