To recruit and retain the tech workforce of the future, federal agencies and the military should embrace digital “democratization” and help existing civilian employees and service members learn IT skills, according to the former chief information officer of the U.S. Army.

Often, potential candidates and recruits complain about the federal hiring process being unattractive and bureaucratic, said Raj Iyer, who left his civilian post overseeing technology for the Army this year and joined software company ServiceNow.

The Army, Navy and Air Force are all projected to fall thousands short of their recruitment goals, Military Times reported. The Army is expected to be the most behind. At the same time, the federal government is facing a major talent shortage of cyber and IT professionals who are being lured by the private sector’s high paying salaries and work-life balance. Average time-to-hire was 106 days in government in 2017, compared with 23 days in other sectors, according to the federal CIO council.

Innovative modernization policies, IT goals and partnerships with industry can help, he said, but the right tools mean little when the government lacks the people in place to use them.

“That’s step one,” he said in an interview with Federal Times.

Iyer spoke on how the government needs to meet candidates where they are, build their skills, and rebrand what it means to be a public servant.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Federal Times: What do you identify as some of the biggest challenges in terms of recruiting?

Raj Iyer: “Government is not doing a good job telling the story of what [it] does. Most people who have not worked in the federal government, who have actually never been there, really see government as this big bureaucracy. That it’s just a bunch of people sitting around, doing nothing and eating up taxpayer dollars. That’s just how people have started to view government.

And yet, a day in the life of a citizen in this nation, every minute of it that you live and you survive, you are doing great things because of government. Not despite government, but because of government. And we’re not able to tell that story. If we can actually tell that story, the number of people that want to come serve and be a public servant is huge. But if we just come across as bureaucratic all the way through — starting with the recruitment process of how we recruit, where we recruit and the process itself being so cumbersome — that’s when you start to lose people.

FT: What can government do to get around these obstacles?

RI: Congress has given us a lot of flexibility in terms of direct hire authorities, and there’s a number of things that are happening across the federal government right now with new pay scales, performance models and flexibility in terms of additional pay and incentives, like all of those things exist. And yet, what agencies really need to do is capitalize on them.

When I was in the Army, if I had a position open, the first thing I would do is I would reach out to my network on LinkedIn. The talent pool that I saw coming in through that process was 10 times better than the list of candidates I would get through USAJobs, which is where those jobs will get posted. A lot of the people in the private sector don’t even know what USAJobs was. They didn’t know where to go for government jobs.

FT: The government is trying very hard to keep up with the rate at which technology is innovating. Is there another way that government can work at the speed of innovation? Or is that the nature of the relationship?

RI: “What I see typically is a lot of software vendors are more than happy to sell tools, but they don’t tell you what to do with it. And I think that is the reason why government struggles with adopting technology at a faster pace than commercial industry does.

Just because of the unique mission of the business of government, which truly, for me having served there as a public servant myself, and now on this side, I can tell you, the complexity of government in terms of scale is way more than anything you would see at any large commercial enterprise. The models are not the same, and the value proposition is not the same, and the expectations of citizens are not the same. And so these are the things that need to be taken into account in translating our technology into solutions.

Agency-level policies that are not well informed by the changing pace of technology, [those] are the obstacles for innovation.

For example, when I was the CIO in the Army in my previous job, one of the first things I had to do was reassess every policy that we had in the book to say is like, ‘OK, is this even still relevant? The last time it was written was 20 years ago, and technology has come a long way since then.’”

FT: “You’ve said before that we can’t wait for a big bang, transformative moment, but rather we’ve got to put technological capabilities in the hands of the workforce and the soldiers incrementally. How do you see government being able to do that?

RI: “It used to be where agencies would write requirements and then [seek a] contract and get the contractor to go build something. I think what we’re seeing now with platforms like ServiceNow that have [low-code, no-code] programming environments built in and workflow automation, it’s relatively easy for [government] to have their own people quickly get trained up to build small apps.

There are a lot of very smart people that work for government who may have come from the private sector and are truly interested in wanting to be more hands on. Today, they don’t have that opportunity. What happens is ... government puts them in a cubicle somewhere, asks them to write a contract or manage a contract, and they get frustrated and they leave. And they’re like ‘Hey, this is not what I came to do. Where’s the action? Where’s the fun?’

When I was in the Army, we established a software factory in Austin [Texas], essentially where we brought in young soldiers from all fields, not just the IT field. There were medics, there were cooks, there were infantrymen. It was all people that had literally no IT skills. And literally within three to six months, they were up and running apps, building apps on their own in low-code environments.

I think that kind of democratizing of the digital platform is what’s going to enable capacity and truly enable agencies to transform digitally.”

FT: We’ve statistics saying there are more federal workers over the age of 60 than under 30. But I imagine there’s an opportunity to upskill this population so agencies can hold onto these folks because they have institutional knowledge that’s valuable.

RI: “You’re absolutely correct. That’s exactly what I see: the more experienced folks that have been in government for a while truly understand the operations of government and can tell you how to actually change the process.

If we take the approach that in an agile team, they become your subject matter experts or domain experts driving change on the functional side, you can team them with somebody that understands the technology.

Like I said, in three to six months, we can get people upskilled and up and running. It’s just: are they up to it? Do they want to do it? If they want to do it, I think the CIO should let them do it. Give them a safe space where they’re allowed to experiment and innovate. That’s critical to retention and recruiting.

I think being just bold and courageous right now is important.”

With reporting by Meghann Myers.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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