Researchers at Vanderbilt University are calling for agencies to modernize recruitment and retention policies after a survey of more than 3,500 federal executives showed a number of agencies are having trouble hiring and holding on to top talent.

"Overall, the federal workforce is capable, but under stress," according the Survey on the Future of Government Service, released Thursday. "Federal executives report difficulty recruiting and retaining the best employees. Furthermore, merit is often not sufficiently incorporated into promotions and, especially, dismissals."

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This was most evident when it came to underperforming employees. Some 70 percent said non-managers are rarely or never fired or reassigned, with 64 percent saying the same of federal management.

The results give an interesting look at the challenges facing federal recruitment and retention, however the report's authors note responses varied widely by agency.

For instance, 66 percent of executives at one agency said the lack of a skilled workforce has led to problems meeting their mission; conversely, 91 percent at another agency said this was not an issue. Overall, 39 percent said an inadequate workforce was a significant issue, while 45 percent disagreed.

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"The survey results show that some agency workforces are very skilled and others are really struggling," said lead researcher David Lewis, political science professor at Vanderbilt University. "The federal government needs to spend some time looking at why some federal agencies are doing poorly and share best practices … There is no modern human resources management like you see in the best private sector firms."

One frustrated executive offered an example of the roadblocks keeping managers from hiring qualified talent:

We have a vast pool of entry-level — and more advanced — talent, but the federal government's arcane procedures make it almost impossible to reach these wonderful candidates. An example of this is the most user-unfriendly place on the planet to look for and the only way to apply for a GS-level job in our agency: the USAjobs website … We recently posted an opening on USAjobs for several entry-level [agency] openings. Within a few days, over 1,000 applicants survived the USAjobs application process, but here at [the agency], we received a list of eight applicants from that process, reflecting veterans preference. We interviewed all eight, were keen to hire four of eight, but are precluded from reaching any of the remaining 992 applicants unless we make offers to all eight … We have many fine candidates out there able to survive in a very high-cost housing market at entry-level salaries, we just can't reach them.

Some 42 percent of respondents said their agency was not able to hire highly qualified employees, citing political pressure to keep workforce numbers down, low salaries and lack of a "proactive recruiting strategy," rather than a lack of qualified applicants.

Similarly, 26 percent of federal executives said they don't expect to be at their agency within a year, compared to 13 percent of CEOs in the private sector.

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At the same time, 72 percent of career executives said they would recommend public service to young people, with 83 percent of political appointees saying the same. The report notes respondents that said promotions are based on performance were also more likely to advocate careers in government.

"It's time to do civil service reform," Lewis said. "I worry that it will be done in piecemeal fashion in response to a crisis rather than the right way, which is to develop a modern-day human resources system for a modern government."

Aaron Boyd is an awarding-winning journalist currently serving as editor of Federal Times — a Washington, D.C. institution covering federal workforce and contracting for more than 50 years — and Fifth Domain — a news and information hub focused on cybersecurity and cyberwar from a civilian, military and international perspective.

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