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Federal Government Trying to Break Free of Antiquated Hiring Systems

Panel discusses challenges and potential solutions for hiring technologists

A man in a wheelchair working on a laptop.

​The federal government is struggling mightily to recruit, retain and develop the talent it needs to succeed and earn the reputation of being a "model employer."

Agencies and their HR leaders are working to upgrade antiquated systems and processes. The new-hire process currently takes an average of 100 days to complete, double that of the private sector.

The Alliance for Digital Innovation hosted a session in Washington, D.C., on May 24 to share steps that federal agencies are taking and to develop a human capital strategy that supports public-sector institutions in a changing world. Currently, Millennials and members of Generation Z make up only 7 percent of the federal workforce.

Pam Coleman, associate director, performance and personnel management, at the Office of Management and Budget, was the keynote speaker. A panel discussion followed. Panelists included Toni Benson, cyber education and training lead at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency; Victoria Houed, an associate at Schmidt Futures and founder at BlackByte, a nonprofit centered around helping Black women succeed in technology; and Julie Meloni, senior delivery director for technology at Slalom Federal in Washington, D.C.

It's 'Wicked Hard' to Find Tech Workers

Agencies are looking to automate more processes so they have more time to focus on daily operations. Technology workers (or technologists) are not only the most needed but also perhaps the most challenging to find, the panelists said.

"Your technology is only as good as who you have on staff who is working with it, and hiring technologists today is wicked hard; there's so much competition," Coleman said.

To her amazement, Houed said, "There's not a central location [such as a government website] for candidates to find these technology jobs. They are listed on a Google Doc somewhere. I'm not even sure who created it. You can find it somewhere on the Internet. Most technology jobs have their own niche online communities where candidates can talk about and share opportunities."

Houed said her group creates fellowships to help fill gaps. "There are so many barriers in place from the legacy hiring processes [that] we are creating more and more fellowships until the government workforce can get caught up with the kind of employees it needs," she noted.

She said the federal government not only needs technologists to "save the day" and "help us get there [on the innovation front], but we have to train the current workers. These technologists can teach others about things such as cybersecurity, cryptocurrency and Web 3.0."

Benson said she's looking to hire the next generation of worker, and that doesn't just mean young workers. It could be those who are seeking a career change.

Coleman said the federal government needs to improve its application process and allow agencies to share candidate profiles if there's a candidate who would be a better fit at another agency.

"We have a robust internship program so that we can attract early talent and track these workers toward becoming full-time employees," Coleman said. "We want to instill a culture where they say, 'I want to work here.' Our career pathing needs to be a matrix and not a ladder. Employees need to be able to get where they want to go, even if it's with another agency. Lateral moves sometimes are needed for them to be able to make that happen. There's a correlation between customer satisfaction and employee happiness."

Avoid Going Off the 'Same Cliff'

Meloni said hiring managers and supervisors need to work toward being empathetic and understanding the pain points of the federal workforce. "It's not hiring tech workers or maintaining career civil servants; it's combining both and understanding the importance of that," she said.

"I can't believe I'm saying this, but we need more middle managers," she added. "There aren't enough to mentor and guide the new hires. Upskilling them is necessary, or they will become bored and leave. Then we'll just hit the same cliff again if we give these employees a great start and that's all we do for them."

Coleman said agencies are embracing the established values set by President Joe Biden's administration: equity, dignity, results and accountability. "We are trying to improve our hiring through innovation and iteration, keep working through things, and be committed to change."

Using Data, Values to Drive the Process

Coleman said the federal government does not lack people data or analytics. "We have it, but [we] need to figure out how to use our own data," she said. "We need to discover new ways to look at the data and take risks; we have these digital natives on staff, and we should look to them for strategy and solutions."

Coleman noted that Biden has repeatedly said he wants the federal government to be a model employer and his No. 1 focus is on the federal workforce.

In the administration's eyes, the attributes of a model employer are:

  • Attracting the most-talented candidates who also represent the demographic makeup of the country.
  • Making sure every federal job is a good job, one where the employee feels heard and empowered, can thrive, and is engaged.
  • Offering careers that have a link to the future by reimagining the role.
"We need to lead with our values as well as keeping it simple and be clear about what success looks like," with the goal to become a model employer, Coleman said.

As Benson put it, "Congress always has tons of new ideas on how to get better, but unless the positions needed to carry these things out are funded, they are simply ideas and not programs."

Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.


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