Reskilling and Hiring for Technology in Government

This article is part two in a series on IT policy recommendations. A PDF of the full recommendations may be downloaded here.

The nature of business is change — we move, refine, and combine goods and services and data, which generates value — and this is true both in the public and the private sector. Technology is just one of the ways that we manage that change. Those organizations that do best at managing change are often the best equipped to deal with the relentless pace of transformation within the IT field itself. Government, however, tends to resist change because of misaligned value incentives which prioritize stability and avoid risk, though these elements do not necessarily need to be at odds with one another.

Since the Reagan era, government agencies have outsourced more and more IT tasks to contractors and vendors, under the false promise of reduced risk and increased savings for taxpayers. There’s an infamous joke that we’ve done such a good job of saving money through IT over the last decade that we’ve reduced the IT budget of $2 billion to $40 billion. Yet almost all of that spending has gone to private companies, instead of increasing Federal staff and providing needed training, and the government has astonishingly little positive progress to show for it — systems and projects continue to fail. This effort has lobotomized government by eliminating subject matter experts, reducing its ability to manage change, and as a result has greatly increased — rather than reduced — the risk for Federal agencies.

Agencies have tried to “buy their way out” of their risk, by leveraging vendors and IT products to “absorb” the risk. Unfortunately, government doesn’t work that way — agencies are solely responsible for risk, and if something fails, the agency, not the vendor, is the one on the hook for any lawsuits or Congressional hearings that result. The only practical way for agencies to deal with their risk and begin paying down the government’s massive technical debt is to hire and train experts inside of government who can address these problems directly, and begin to facilitate change management.

In the Cloud Smart strategy OMB states, “to harness new capabilities and expand existing abilities to enable their mission and deliver services to the public faster … instead of ‘buy before build’, agencies will need to move to ‘solve before buy,’ addressing their service needs, fundamental requirements, and gaps in processes and skillsets.” Although there has been a major effort to hire and train cybersecurity professionals in government, technology literacy needs to be improved in all job roles. Technology will always be a core function of government, and to be successful, government must have expertise in its core functions; to do otherwise is to deliberately sabotage that success.

Efforts such as GSA’s 18F Team and The US Digital Service (USDS) have proven that there is a need for this expertise, and the government must continue and expand on those efforts by teaching agencies “how to fish.” Beyond just these short-term hires via Digital Service/Schedule A and Cybersecurity/2210 to augment staff temporarily, agencies need to invest in permanently expanding their knowledge, skills, and capacity.

Increase Training Opportunities for Federal Government Employees

First, there needs to be a governmentwide approach to increasing training, starting with additional funding in the President’s budget dedicated to improving IT skills. Financial and leave award incentives could also be used to encourage staff to participate in more training outside of their immediate job roles.

The Federal Cybersecurity Reskilling Academy as part of the Cloud Smart strategy was a good start, but didn’t go far enough. It’s impossible to fully train a practitioner in everything they need to know about Cybersecurity — or any other complex technology — in just a few short weeks. A real apprenticeship program in the form of agency rotation & detail programs for staff into more IT-mature agencies would have a major impact, by allowing staff to learn skills on-the-job in a hands-on way. Many of these skills are impossible to learn meaningfully from a book or seminar; in general most technical certifications — instead of being required — should be met with skepticism.

Almost all policy decisions today have some aspect of technology involved. To address the rapidly aging Federal IT infrastructure and make smart investments with taxpayer dollars, all of our leaders need to be equipped with knowledge of modern systems beyond just the sales pitches they receive from vendors. Ongoing training in technology must be made a priority and part of every Senior Executive Service (SES) performance plan.

Create a new IT Job Series

Although many technologists have been willing to work for a short term of 2–4 years in government at a massive pay cut just out of a feeling of civic duty, this sort of “holiday labor” is not a sustainable path for long-term success. A new Administration will need to address the massive pay disparity for government IT jobs, which acts as a barrier to both hiring and retaining staff. The White House will need to direct the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to establish a proper IT job series or extend the 2210 CyberSecurity role definition, and create a special rate that reduces this gap particularly at the top end of the scale (GS-13 through GS-15).

Ideally this pay should be competitive with the private sector by locale, or as close to the standard rates as possible. And this pay must be made available to staff as they are retrained, not just to outsiders coming in to government with lucrative salaries from the private sector. Without this key step, the work done to reskill our staff will be lost as they use their new skills to find better-paying employment outside of government.

Also, this job series should include not only security personnel, software engineers, and graphic designers, but also non-traditional (but very important) members of government technical teams such as program & product managers, contracting officer representatives (CORs), customer experience experts, and content designers.

Leverage Modern Hiring Techniques to Bring in Skilled Personnel

Third, agencies must be directed to aggressively move away from older hiring processes and switch to techniques which evaluate if candidates can actually do the job. OPM, in coordination with USDS, has already done a lot of work towards this, including eliminating education requirements and moving to knowledge-based hiring techniques, but agencies largely have not yet implemented this new guidance. The White House will need to apply more pressure for these changes if agencies are expected to adopt them. Initiatives such as Launch Grad and the Civic Digital Fellowship could also provide a pipeline for potential candidates with critical skills into government service.

Improving Diversity in the Senior Executive Service

Finally, major improvements must be made to the Senior Executive Service (SES) hiring process. These staff represent the senior leaders at Federal agencies, and almost all policy decisions today have some aspect of technology involved. To address the rapidly aging Federal IT infrastructure and make smart investments with taxpayer dollars, all of our leaders need to be equipped with knowledge of modern systems beyond just the sales pitches they receive from vendors.

In addition to increasing critical technical knowledge of these key decision-makers, the lack of diversity of this group has gone woefully unaddressed even after years of critical reports. Since these SESs are on the boards that hire the other SESs, and many of these leadership roles are filled due to tacit political connections not the candidates’ skills, it is unlikely that the diversity will improve organically from this in-group.

This entire hiring process needs to be reconsidered to level the playing field. The Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs) were a good idea to set a baseline for expertise in senior management, but have largely become an expensive gatekeeping exercise. This has given rise to a cottage industry of writers who simply churn out government resumes to a pricetag of thousands of dollars. I know of very few SES staff who were not either hand-picked for their first SES role or who paid to have their resume written by a professional. This limits these staff to those who can “pay to play” — either with literal dollars or political influence, severely limiting the candidate pool.

On the reviewer’s end, it’s long been known that overtaxed human resources staff are often just searching for keywords from the job postings in the resumes as a means of first review, which eliminates anyone who may have missed a specific word or phrase. Government expertise and education appears to be given a higher standing than outside experience as well. And after your ECQs have been approved once you don’t need to have them re-reviewed for each job, further narrowing the list of candidates who are considered.

There is no single, easy solution to the systemic problems in this process. Expanding training opportunities for senior General Schedule employees (GS-14 and GS-15) beyond just the outdated and time-consuming Candidate Development Program would be a first step. A new Administration could make diversity a key priority in the President’s Management Agenda, setting goals for hiring and new initiatives for recruiting under the Chief Human Capital Officers Council (CHCOC).

In Closing: Countering Bias Through Diversity

Our country is changing, and so is the nature of government. Diversity is critical for all technology roles in government, not just leadership. Addressing systemic bias in the tools that agencies are implementing will require attention from all levels of staff. Our benefit systems must provide services equitably to all, but this will be impossible without acknowledging these biases. However, due to a recent Executive Order, training around bias has largely been halted in the Federal government, reducing our ability to tackle this challenge. As the government begins to close gaps around technology skills, it is critical that we’re building a workforce that reflects the people we serve, so that we can better address these issues at their root.

Civic Technologist & Policy Enthusiast. Views are my own, not my employer’s. Move carefully and fix things.