Preparing Government Workforces for Future Shocks
Government leaders and partners recently discussed how best to develop a skilled workforce to prepare for and respond to crises across multiple domains.
Systemic shocks are becoming more frequent, interconnected, and destabilizing. Geopolitical conflicts, cyberattacks, public health emergencies, supply chain disruptions, and climate-related disasters (extreme heat, wildfires, hurricanes, drought) are among the many overlapping shocks increasingly confronting societies across the globe.
Governments at all levels cannot address systemic shocks without the right people with the right skills in the right place. And yet, persistent mission-critical skills shortages undermine the abilities of governments to meet their missions.
To help government address these persistent and daunting challenges, the National Academy of Public Administration (the Academy), the IBM Center for The Business of Government, and the IBM Institute for Business Value jointly sponsored a recent roundtable of experts and leaders to identify practical near-term steps that governments at all levels can take to create and sustain workforces needed to address current and future systemic shocks. This session was the latest in a series of roundtables addressing different domains -- including cybersecurity, supply chain management, and sustainability -- through which governments can build capacity to plan for and respond to shocks (see other research and reports in the series here).
The public sector’s traditional standardized approaches to recruiting, hiring, developing, and retaining the needed talent no longer meet current and emerging needs. To cite just a few examples:
- The federal government’s mission critical skills shortages have been on the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) High Risk List since 2001, with only limited progress reported.
- Challenges in acquiring and retaining mission-critical skills can be particularly acute for state and local agencies involved in emergency preparedness and response. The diversity of the skill sets required, the need for surge capacity during emergencies, and the evolving missions of organizations to accommodate the overlapping nature of emergencies create additional staffing problems for preparedness and response.
- A separate cyber resilience roundtable sponsored by the Academy and IBM concluded: “(T)o address the rapidly growing gap between supply and demand for cybersecurity professionals, roundtable participants stressed the importance of increasing the cyber talent resource base and putting it at the top of the list of actionable priorities. . . . cyber skill shortfalls impact a broad set of disciplines including analysis and engineering, software development, threat intelligence, penetration testing, auditing and consulting, digital forensics, and cryptography.”
- Local governments are similarly challenged by skills gaps that undermine service delivery.As one example among many, the Berkeley City Auditor reported in June 2023 that “Berkeley had a high vacancy rate, reflecting staff shortages. These shortages have caused reductions in basic services for community members, such as delayed staff responses and facility closures.”
What should be done? The recent Workforce Resilience Roundtable identified 10 agency-specific and governmentwide workforce strategies that governments need to develop and implement.
Step 1: Systemically integrate mission-related strategic planning with workforce plans to acquire and develop talent for current needs, while also using foresight strategies to understand future talent needs. Talent management should be understood as a continuum, with the first step to identify the talent required to meet current and emerging program needs. Agency strategic planning should use insights from enterprise risk management and strategic foresight to identify skills needed to address future shocks and other emerging challenges.
Step 2: Line managers should take greater ownership of their unit’s workforce issues. Human resource office support is vital, but line managers must actively participate in recruitment, hiring, and training and development -- not just leave this to HR professionals to handle.
Step 3: Use agile approaches to workforce acquisition and development. Generative AI and other technological advances are rapidly and radically altering the nature of work. Many existing jobs and even some entire occupations may benefit from automation. Agile approaches can ensure that recruitment and hiring strategies take full advantage of technology and quickly pivot to acquire newly identified talent needs. Creating dedicated opportunities for continuous reskilling and learning to address emerging technologies are likewise vital.
Step 4: Accelerate the move to skills-based hiring. All too often, the current recruitment approach overly prizes the “right” educational majors and “directly relevant experience.” A skills-based approach, according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), “helps hiring managers focus on what candidates know how to do, not where they learned it. It values all relevant skills for the role at hand, whether they are learned in the classroom, on the job, or on one’s own.” A skills-based approach opens opportunities for recruitment from a wider range of sources, helps build a diverse and resilient workforce, and minimizes unnecessary credentialism.
Government occupations often require deep technical knowledge. But they can also require skills beyond specific technical areas. These include softer skills such as teamwork, collaboration, communication with diverse communities, and discernment (the ability to separate the signal from the noise). Boundary spanners are needed—agile generalists who can build and integrate the work of specialists across disciplines and organizations.
Step 5: Rebuild organizational cultures and operating models to maximize the contributions of the agency’s talent. As one participant noted, “Skills gaps and hiring challenges are often masking deeper cultural and operational problems.” Agencies at all levels of government need to ensure that their organizational cultures are inclusive and welcoming to new hires with diverse backgrounds and skills. Roundtable participants said that too often new hires find that organizational cultures, processes, and tools do not align with their expectations—in which they may quickly leave for other employment. This is particularly the case when government technology lags behind private sector standards that new hires are accustomed to using.
Step 6: More fully use existing personnel flexibilities while making evidence-based cases for greater flexibility when appropriate. Agencies often have a wide variety of workforce flexibilities and authorities—such as critical pay and hiring authorities—that can help to address skills gaps. However, they may not always know about or understand how best to use these tools.
Step 7: Establish a data strategy to provide consistent, timely, and high quality information to guide decisions. At the federal level, OPM has a 2023-2026 data strategy to harness workforce data and increase the value and use of federal workforce data. According to the strategy: “Given that OPM collects data on the federal civilian workforce across the employee lifecycle, from recruiting to employment to retirement, the agency has a historic opportunity to become a hub for delivering data-driven policy, enhanced analytics, data standards, and digital solutions that together are key enablers for strategic human capital management across the federal government.” Public-facing dashboards and metrics should be used to show progress and pinpoint improvement opportunities at all levels of government.
Step 8: Strengthen the capacity and orientation of HR professionals to better support line managers in implementing innovative workforce strategies. Many HR offices suffer from critical skills shortages, while at the same time needing to build capacity to develop and use innovative workforce management tools.
Step 9: Leverage governmentwide opportunities through the councils, interagency working groups, and communities of practice. Cross agency collaborative mechanisms can assist with developing policy, piloting new approaches, supporting implementation, and gathering and sharing good practices.
For example, the National Cyber Director established the National Cyber Workforce Coordination Group (NCWCG) and its subordinate working group, the Federal Cyber Workforce Working Group (FCWWG), in December 2022. The NCWCG serves as the principal interagency forum for federal agencies to address challenges and opportunities associated with cyber education, training, and workforce development, and serves as an implementation vehicle for the upcoming national strategy on cyber workforce and education. The FCWWG is the primary forum for interagency planning and executing necessary actions to build the federal cyber workforce and talent pipeline.
Step 10: Consider the workforce in a broad sense. The complex problems that governments seek to address span the boundaries of agency jurisdictions, levels of government, sectors, and professional disciplines. In direct response, how government leaders think about the workforce must span boundaries as well. For example, FEMA examines its “total force” with full-time FEMA employees at the center, but also including a wide range of other federal, state and local, private sector, and civil society partners with key roles in helping FEMA meet its disaster response mission.
The ten steps highlighted above, which draw on the insights of experts who joined a very active roundtable discussion, constitute an actionable roadmap for government leaders and stakeholders to implement in building a skilled workforce with the capacity to plan for and respond to future shocks,
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