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Public Contract Law Journal

Public Contract Law Journal Vol. 52, No. 1

The Federal IT Crisis: Advocating for Digital Governance and the Development of a More Robust Federal Government Cyber Workforce

Stuart Robbins


  • Addresses the severe cyber skills gap, aging workforce, and hindered modernization efforts facing federal agencies
  • Highlights the urgent need for enhanced cybersecurity measures and a modernized digital government, with the pandemic emphasizing both the challenges and opportunities for federal agencies
  • Discusses modernization priorities, including remote work and recruiting overhaul solutions
The Federal IT Crisis: Advocating for Digital Governance and the Development of a More Robust Federal Government Cyber Workforce
Jasmin Merdan via Getty Images

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The COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered the federal government, demonstrating the need for increased attention and resources in combating cybersecurity threats and providing a modern digital government experience to constituents. A severe cyber skills gap within the federal government, coupled with an increasingly aging federal workforce, has left some federal agencies struggling to modernize.

This crisis also presents unique opportunities. As the push for a technologically modern federal government grows along with recognition of the importance of federal cybersecurity, a number of possibilities for the modern federal agency have opened up and are on the path to becoming certainties.

To take advantage of the opportunities presented by these changes and to best position their respective agencies going forward, Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and agency executives should prioritize solutions to attract, train, and retain a technologically savvy workforce. This requires carving out or seeking funding for different information technology (IT) pay scales to compete with private practice, rebranding the federal government to attract young talent, and centering customer experience in the design and development of new programs, websites, and digital services that serve as the bedrock of IT modernization.

I. Introduction

While emerging technologies have always changed how agencies are able to meet their missions, recent years have seen an explosion of new technologies, changes in workstyles, and technology-driven threats. This transformation has come at an immense cost to the federal government. President Joe Biden has requested $58.4 billion for IT at civilian agencies for fiscal year (FY) 2022, marking a new annual federal information technology (IT) spending high. Because of the massive scale of federal investment in IT systems and services, it is critically important that we properly invest in IT procurement and modernization to ensure that American citizens get the most for their tax dollars. Currently, the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) annual report indicates that citizen satisfaction with federal government services has hit an all-time low score of 63.4%. The highest drop in satisfaction from 2019 was in the efficiency and ease of government services, which fell from 68% to 63%, with satisfaction in government websites not far ahead at a measly 70%. It is more important than ever before that federal agencies work to reverse this trend by recruiting, training, and retaining the tech talent required to modernize the federal government and bring federal services into the modern age.

The current administration is working to do just that. This year, the Biden administration announced a new U.S. Digital Corps program to provide early-career technologists with a two-year opportunity to work in the federal government. The first cohort includes forty-one fellows spread across thirteen different agencies. According to General Services Administration (GSA) Administrator Robin Carnahan, this new program is intended to serve the goals of “building a pipeline of diverse talent to GSA and recruiting the next generation of public servants.” In addition to solving the long-term issue of creating resources to foster technology modernization and digital transformation across the government, this program is also intended to meet President Biden’s goals for advancing federal IT and cybersecurity. The program hopes to accept fellows in a number of different agencies, including the GSA, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and the Centers for Medicare and Medicare Services (CMS). Programs such as these are instrumental in solving the challenges faced by the federal tech workforce and creating a more modern government. Further, in June 2022, President Biden signed a bill into law that establishes a rotational cyber program within the federal government to attract and retain cybersecurity workers by offering them new professional experiences across different federal agencies.

The federal government’s focus on IT may be here to stay, with President Biden’s recent Management Agenda Vision stating, “The COVID-19 pandemic showed us how critical IT investments are to supporting mission delivery and the essential work of Government.” The document also explicitly mentions the federal technology skills gap and the rise of remote work, explaining that, “[t]o better prepare for our future, we also must identify and address critical skills gaps across the Federal IT and cybersecurity workforce,”and, “[b]y utilizing expanded flexibilities in work arrangements, such as expanded telework and alternative work schedules, and increased adoption of technology, such as cloud computing, collaboration tools, and automation, the Government will enhance its ability to recruit and retain top talent, staying competitive with broader trends in how Americans work.”

This Note will explain the scope of issues and opportunities facing federal agencies as they seek to maintain and modernize federal IT systems while building the necessary federal cyber workforce needed to provide the American public with modern digital services and to meet critical agency missions. In the coming years, agency leadership should look to the recommendations of specialists, choosing the most innovative strategies to meet their specific agency missions. Agencies that work to implement these recommendations will be on the path towards meeting the Biden administration’s management agenda while better preparing their agencies for the future.

II. Cybersecurity and Threats to National Security Drive Change by Providing Strong Incentives to Modernize

Cybersecurity has been a major bipartisan issue on the federal government’s radar for the last decade, with President Barack Obama issuing Executive Order 13636 in February 2013 to strengthen and protect the cybersecurity of critical infrastructure in response to potential threats. Cybersecurity threats have continued to demand attention from the Biden administration, notwithstanding this Executive Order directing the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop a Cybersecurity Framework with risk-based security standards for critical infrastructure-operating companies. In fact, a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found, “significant weaknesses in information security controls,” among federal agencies, indicating that the federal information systems that are integral to meeting agency missions are potentially vulnerable.

President Biden is focusing on federal government modernization to help guard the nation against the recent onslaught of serious cyber threats. For instance, news broke in December 2020 that several different federal agencies were breached as part of a SolarWinds software scandal, prompting President Biden to declare cybersecurity as one of his administration’s top priorities. Additionally, a number of recent cyberattacks and discovered vulnerabilities, such as The Colonial Pipeline Company hack by DarkSide and the ensuing fuel shortage, along with the 2021 discovery of the log4J vulnerability embedded in many government systems, only further emphasized that enhanced cybersecurity within the federal government is critical and that change is overdue.

To combat this threat, President Joe Biden issued Executive Order 14028 on May 12, 2021, addressing the vulnerability of both private and public online networks, while also demanding improvements of technical standards across the entire federal government. The Executive Order focuses on improving data use, modernizing IT across the government, and ensuring cybersecurity throughout federal networks. The Executive Order also aims to help move agencies to, “secure cloud services and a zero-trust architecture, and mandates deployment of multifactor authentication and encryption [within] a specific time period.” The Executive Order also establishes new approaches for software acquisition, directing the U.S. Commerce Department of Commerce to, “identify existing or develop new standards, tools and best practices,” for firms that sell software to the government. Among other priorities, the Executive Order also tackles the problem of “legacy” software, pushing IT modernization in federal agencies. Notably, the Executive Order instructed OMB to issue policy guidance and specifically recommend changes to the federal acquisition regulations. OMB has been actively working on a cybersecurity-supply chain risk management policy memo that is expected to map onto guidance released by the NIST and includes new contract clause requirements that have already been sent to the FAR Council. The Biden administration’s emphasis on cybersecurity, its commitment to reimagining IT procurement, and its approach to modernization provide a unique opportunity that should be capitalized on in order to catapult the federal government into the modern era.

Many of the issues with modern IT procurement can be traced back to a few pieces of legislation. The three major pieces of legislation regarding IT procurement are the Brooks Act, the Clinger-Cohen Act, and the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA). After FITARA, several legislative updates have clarified and expanded upon IT procurement best practices, from OMB guidance to the 2017 passage of the Modernizing Government Technology Act (MGT). In part, MGT created the Technology Modernization Fund and authorized agencies to establish working capital funds for the migration away from legacy IT systems. The confusing mix of legislation is complicated by the fact that the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) itself offers minimal guidance for IT procurement. FAR Part 39 requires agencies to ensure that all contracts meet Privacy Act requirements, provide rules of conduct for contractors to follow, and identify anticipated threats and hazards that contractors must guard against. Guidance and directives on data security provided by NIST, the Department of Defense (DoD), and industry groups stand-in for this lack of guidance, leading some contracts to incorporate up to a dozen different standards. A recent GAO report found that out of the twenty-four agencies analyzed, not a single one had developed clear policies fully addressing the identified thirty-five key responsibilities assigned by law to agency Chief Information Officers (CIOs) for IT management. While this approach provides flexibility, it also risks creating inconsistency and leading to the development of uneven protocols.

III. The Current State of Federal IT Acquisitions: Using Interagency Acquisitions to Overcome Obstacles to Modernization

While government IT acquisition is fraught with restrictive procurement legislation and formal guidance that are often confusing or altogether lacking, interagency acquisition and other best practices can help agency leadership plan for the effective modernization of legacy IT systems. Unfortunately, the management of IT acquisitions and operations has been categorized by GAO as high risk since 2015. More must be done to overcome the significant problems facing federal agency IT acquisition. One monumental problem to address is that “[a]gencies aren’t required to evaluate whether existing IT assets are fine as-is, need updating or should be retired.” The lack of required check-ins on this front, coupled with the confusing mix of IT procurement legislation and a lack of specialized practical knowledge within many agencies, prevents agencies from effectively modernizing.

A. Navigating Federal IT Procurement Legislation Can Be a Difficultand Confusing Process

The same pieces of legislation discussed above often hinder effective IT procurement by federal agencies. According to a 2019 report by the GAO, the federal government’s ten legacy systems that most desperately need modernization cost taxpayers $337 million a year to operate and maintain.

Further, more recent assessments, such as the FITARA Government Agency Scorecard, reveal that nine of the top twenty-five scoring agencies received a grade of C in the category of Modernizing Government for both July and December of 2021. One instance of recent modernization efforts comes from the United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which has published its plan to modernize in FY 2022. According to the most recent U.S. OPM Report on Management’s Top Challenges for Fiscal Year 2022, “The study resulted in recommendations for a phased approach that starts with modernizing and stabilizing core IT systems and processes and building an effective organizational structure within the agency’s Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) to implement the modernization initiatives.” However, to modernize, agencies such as OPM need to navigate the complex patchwork of IT procurement legislation, requirements, standards, and best practices.

B. Interagency Acquisitions and IT Procurement Specialists Can Be Leveragedto Assist Agency Leadership Seeking to Modernize Their Agencies

A wide variety of different procurement methods can be used to accomplish IT procurement, including interagency acquisition.Under federal procurement models, some agencies—such as the GSA—have developed IT procurement expertise that can be leveraged by other agencies seeking IT purchases. Specifically, GSA has fulfilled its statutory mission of procuring products and services for a variety of other federal agencies by serving as a central procurer since 1949. Over the last ten years a number of other agencies have started conducting interagency acquisitions through government-wide acquisition contracts (GWACs) and multi-agency contracts (MACs), including the National Institute of Health (NIH), the Department of Commerce (DOC), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Interagency acquisition is a powerful tool for agencies to leverage for procurement. Recent changes to interagency acquisition include the General Services Administration Modernization Act, which was signed into law in October 2006, establishing a Federal Acquisition Service that replaced the former General Supply Fund and the Information Technology Fund with an Acquisition Services Fund. GWACs, which were created under the Clinger-Cohen Act and used for the procurement of IT and telecommunications, are another important tool for interagency acquisition. However, only four agencies are authorized to create GWACs: GSA, DOC, NASA, and NIH. The GSA recently used GWACs to award 426 small businesses with contracts to supply agencies with new technologies, finishing the first phase of its fifty billion dollar 8(a) STARS III contracts. GSA’s TTS 18F, the agency’s technology and design consultancy, recently published a 128-page guide demonstrating best practices for federal IT projects, which seeks to “de-risk” IT acquisition. This guide provides examples of the various IT procurement models that agencies can implement and highlights how agencies can find the most appropriate contracting vehicles to use for their modernization journey. Having a clear understanding of the procurement tools available to an agency is a critical part of moving away from legacy IT infrastructure and frees up time and energy to be spent on improving customer service and meeting other agency priorities.

IV. The Federal Cyber Workforce Talent Gap: Looming Retirements and Inefficiencies in Federal Hiring

While agency adoption of new and exciting technologies like cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI) has garnered lots of attention, “modernization efforts have not been limited to technologies or standards, but [they] have extended to project management and federal hiring initiatives designed to make the government more agile and flexible in trying times and beyond.” With the demand for tech workers skyrocketing in recent years, agencies are facing an uphill battle in the quest to modernize. In fact, “[a]bout 83% of major federal departments and agencies struggle with staffing shortages and 63% report gaps in the knowledge and skills of their employees.” According to data from a Department of Commerce grant, as of August 06, 2022, there were 714,548 cybersecurity job openings in the country. A cyber workforce tracker from the National Institute of Standards and Technology establishes that in June 2022, there were 714,000 open cybersecurity jobs, of which 39,000 were within the private sector. Over 36,000 public-sector cyber jobs are available within federal, state, and local governments. To effectively modernize, agencies must grapple with how they will replace the aging workforce and fill open job postings while simultaneously reforming the federal government hiring processes to attract a younger generation of future civil servants.

A. An Aging Workforce, Open Federal Tech Job Postings, and Keeping Young Workers in Government

The federal cyber workforce faces increasing talent shortages, impending federal retirements, and open federal job postings. For instance, within the federal IT workforce, roughly one-third of full-time employees on board at the beginning of FY 2019 will be eligible to retire by the end of FY 2023; sixteen times more employees are over the age of fifty than under the age of thirty. The government is struggling to pull in enough young workers to replace the aging workforce, with the number of new hires from the Pathways intern recruiting program falling from 35,000 in 2010 to 4,000 in 2018. The federal government is also facing an attrition and poor workplace experience crisis, with over seventy-three percent of the full-time employees under thirty who had voluntarily quit federal service in FY 2019 doing so after less than two years in government.

The dramatic shortage of incoming tech talent within the federal government is further amplified by the fact that many young programmers do not know how to operate legacy IT systems that run on older coding languages that are often not taught in schools anymore and that young programmers are not interested in learning. The situation is only further exacerbated by the risk of lost institutional knowledge that is occurring by the great resignation and the increasing number of long-term employees departing from the federal workforce. Agencies may be left without the skills or talent to support rapidly evolving agency missions and responsibilities.

B. Finding Applicants and Encouraging Workers to Stay: Federal Government Hiring Inefficiencies and Cultural Issues

The federal government faces several significant hurdles in the hunt for new tech talent, such as pay scales that fail to compete with the private sector, bureaucratic inflexibility that repels prospective young tech workers, and an overly complicated hiring process. The length of time from application to hiring also presents practical challenges, as it “[i]t takes the government an average of ninety-eight days to bring new talent on board—more than double the time in the private sector.” Further, the hiring process struggles to adapt to evolving agency needs, with just fourteen competitive public job announcements making up twenty percent of all federal hires made in FY 2017. Additionally, professional opportunities for young people are hidden and scarce, demonstrating that the federal government has a way to go in its quest to adapt to the needs of a modern workforce that values mobility, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The significant issues facing federal government agencies in hiring also cross over into workforce culture, with the “[t]he 2020 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” employee engagement score rating for the federal government clocking in at sixty nine out of one hundred—lagging well behind the private sector by more than eight points. More must be done to ensure that careers in the federal workforce are highly engaging and drawing in and retaining high-performing federal employees. Similarly, in recent years, the federal government’s brand has been damaged, with the federal government ranking dead last for reputation in a poll comparing the government to America’s ninety-nine most-high profile companies.

Two ongoing questions are what kind of academic degrees should agencies require potential applicants to have and how do agencies’ hiring practices or requirements hold agencies back in comparison to the private sector? A primary concern is how to bring on talented technology professionals, considering the higher salaries of the private sector and the overall frustration regarding government bureaucracy. As the CEO of FedHIVE mentioned in the “Building a Cloud Smart Workforce” panel hosted by the Advanced Technology Academic research Center in October, “We’re going to have 100,000 job openings for cloud in the next few years.” In such a fast-moving field, other concerns include outdated qualifications and the need for “soft” interpersonal skills in addition to technical ability.

V. Solutions

Numerous potential solutions that agencies could leverage to effectively modernize while still meeting their core missions are identified below. All of these solutions are tools that should be implemented, at least in part. However, the most critical solution is to leverage the unique aspects of federal work and to provide additional professional flexibility to attract public service-oriented tech talent into the federal workforce.

A. Budget for Modernization by Seeking out Alternative Sources of Fundingto the Normal Appropriations Process

The decision to modernize leaves agency executives with tough decisions to make about how to prioritize and manage budgetary allocations. President Biden’s May 2021 Executive Order calls for improvements to national cybersecurity and modernized systems throughout the entire government. Additionally, President Biden’s June 2021 Executive Order calls for a more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible federal workforce. Further, his December 2021 Executive Order demands that customer service and experience be improved throughout the entire federal government. To meet these various goals, executives must find management solutions that can be reasonably accounted for with available funding. This is particularly challenging because in addition to the goals above and the cost of modernizing entire IT systems, agencies must also set aside funds and spend energy to recruit, train, and retain a capable and diverse federal tech workforce that can execute plans to deliver the best customer experience to the American people while simultaneously meeting mission-critical goals.

The GAO’s exhaustive list of critical federal systems that require modernization highlights the scope of the budgetary problem of IT modernization. For example, one GAO report found that eighty percent of the federal government’s IT budget is spent on operating and maintaining existing IT investments and legacy systems, rather than on improving them. This expenditure is not an effective or efficient use of funding as money spent on legacy systems cuts down on the amount of available funding for ambitious and desperately needed IT modernization plans. One solution is for agency leadership to exhaust the available resources outside traditional appropriations, leveraging resources from programs such as the Technology Modernization Fund and the American Rescue Plan, which together, allocate more than one billion dollars toward technological modernization endeavors. Federal Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) Chris DeRusha has indicated that lessons learned from use of funds by agencies to modernize their security systems in accordance with Executive Order 14028 are being looked at by the Technology Modernization Fund Board.

Other programs, including the Presidential Innovations Fellowship Program and 18F consulting services, are innovative programs that expose tech talent to the benefits of federal service while assisting federal agencies with their modernization goals. With the Biden administration’s priorities firmly set on the digital modernization of the government, now is the best time to take advantage of available resources to invest in new IT systems, services, and recruitment of top tech talent.

A modern digital government can seem like a paradoxical or impossible task, especially as agencies struggle to migrate away from legacy mission-critical technologies while seamlessly integrating replacements. Efforts like the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) modernization scheme also generate skepticism towards the federal government’s ability to effectively modernize. The IRS’s sixty-year-old IT system is expected to take twenty-one years to update, and there are concerns over whether that timeline will cause the new system to become outdated as well by the time the modernization is completed. How can agencies hope to effectively modernize in this context?

B. Prioritize Digital Governance in the Development of a Modern Government

The aspirational concept of digital governance provides the answer. Digital governance is the idea that citizens should be able to effectively interact with the government using the most cutting-edge communication and information technologies, just as they do daily with sophisticated websites and commercial marketplaces. In today’s world, this objective means being able to access virtually all government services through digital platforms that are easy to navigate and accessible for different kinds of users. To reach this ambitious goal, agencies must look beyond merely refurbishing or replacing legacy IT systems with the easiest to implement solution. Instead, they must leverage the use of data and integrate customer service into the foundation of their business models.

1. Integrating Data Strategy and Usage into Regular Agency Operationsand Business Decisions

In 2021, OMB issued eleven different action items for agencies to implement regarding data strategy. These mandatory actions focus on data literacy among the workforce, data governance, and workforce development of data centers. The plan was designed using the foundations set out in the 2020 Action Plan, with appropriate updates to the strategies for the eleven action items, six of which apply to all agencies, and five of which are specifically tailored to a subset of groups within the federal government. The six common action items laid out in the plan are for agencies to (1) gather and assess data identified for priority agency question, (2) review mature data governance, (3) consider data and infrastructure maturity, (4) increase staff data skills, (5) publish agency open data plans, and (6) improve data inventories. The plan specifically states that “[t]he increased flexibility for 2021 encourages agencies to tackle areas that best serve their mission (e.g., for some agencies it may be data governance, while for others it may be workforce development or data management and interoperability) and learn from each other throughout the process.”

A critical component of this plan—one of the six action items—is to increase staff data skills, which is particularly important because it serves as the foundation for other efforts to increase technical competency throughout the government. Our federal workforce’s human capital is a critical part of modernization, and the 2021 Action Plan specifically states that “agencies should begin work to fill immediate skills gaps by improving the data literacy of all employees, increasing professional development opportunities, and planning to hire staff with the requisite data skills.” OPM called on agencies to develop, by the end of 2022, “a solid foundation throughout their workforce, including a minimum level of data literacy among all staff and a sufficient accumulation of data skills to allow for effective performance of all aspects of the data lifecycle.”

A recent GAO survey asked managers from twenty-four different federal agencies about their use of performance information and data in business decisions, finding that “[p]erformance information can help decision makers understand and improve results at federal agencies. GAO’s 2020 survey of federal managers showed that the reported use of performance information in decision-making generally increased across the federal government compared to prior surveys.” This particular study was conducted in accordance with the Foundations for Evidence Based Policymaking Act of 2018, which requires federal agencies to submit policy-making plans to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Congress each year for approval that illustrates how they will use both quantitative and qualitative data to improve agency functioning and policymaking.

Several agencies stood out for their increase in the use of performance information as a driving force within their decision-making processes, including NASA, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Small Business Administration (SBA), and the VA. Alissa Czyz, GAO’s Strategic Issues Group acting director, informed Nextgov that congressional engagement and oversight are important motivating factors for agencies to actually integrate the use of data into regular business operations on a daily basis. This demonstrates that congressional involvement is a powerful tool for accountability when it comes to encouraging agencies to efficiently integrate data into their regular operations and decision-making process that should be further explored for the creation of a more effective and modern federal government.

2. Centering Customer Experience to Meet the Needs of the Modern Citizen

As for customer experience (CX), the Biden administration has signaled a commitment to improving the experience citizens have when accessing government services. Following the revisions made to OMB’s Circular A-11 guidance and the customer experience Executive Order issued by President Biden in December 2021, the administration has also set aside $100 million from the Technology Modernization Fund for CX projects, and OMB’s Information Technology Operating Plan specifically outlines that funding from sources such as the Technology Modernization Fund and the IT Oversight plan will be helpful for updating federal computer systems and improving user experience. Consulting firm KPMG offers three key recommendations for improving government CX in the series “Blueprints for a Modern Government.” These recommendations are designed to focus on human-centered design principles, implement CX training programs for employees, and develop incentives for moving the entire agency forward. CX is essential both for improving citizen interaction with federal agencies and is integral for the long-term technological modernization of the government. Central to the goal of training programs for employees is finding the right talent and prioritizing training programs to give these employees the skills they need to provide better customer experience. The third goal, developing incentives for moving the entire agency forward on CX, is critical because an organization’s CX cannot be changed without concerted and consistent efforts across the entire organization.

Workforce optimization provides one potential solution that brings together the use of data and customer experience within agencies by promoting automation of core functions such as data collection that permit HR officers to focus on making data-driven decisions relating to hiring, retaining, and upskilling the federal workforce. Both integrating data into the daily operations of agencies and accounting for customer experience will allow agencies to modernize in a way that offers the most value to our citizens and prepares each agency to meet its specific mission goals.

C. Other Innovative Practices to Fill the Skills Gap: Competing with the Private Sector for Talent by Following Expert Recommendations

A 2020 CIO Council report suggested that agencies should take a number of steps to improve federal IT, including (1) developing a new government-wide special IT pay system, (2) moving to a competency-based classification model for all IT positions, (3) creating interdisciplinary procurement teams, (4) redesigning the IT recruiting and hiring process to attract highly qualified and diverse individuals, (5) making federal IT career paths more attractive to the workforce of the future, (6) improving recognition for the best performers and innovators in federal IT, (7) comparing the effectiveness of IT workforce programs with the private sector, (8) expanding existing pilot programs to improve recruiting efforts, (9) increasing adoption and long-term impact of intragovernmental augmentation and offerings, and (10) employing more technical SMEs who are trained as project managers. These viable solutions are a critical component in the development of a more robust federal tech workforce because they provide different options that agencies can leverage to attract top tech talent in a competitive marketplace. This report also highlighted five different primary issue areas and drivers of the future,: (1) recruit/hire best-in-class tech professionals to the federal government, (2) retain IT professionals by providing training opportunities and flexible work arrangements, (3) reskill the federal workforce to fill the skills gap, (4) augment the federal IT workforce with agile groups from within government and from the public sector, and (5) measure success and failures in meeting these goals using data.

Another proposal made to Congress for the acceleration and revitalization of the federal workforce included these suggestions: (1) create high expectations for federal leaders, (2) utilize innovation talent models, (3) promote government’s mission, (4) improve recruiting, hiring and retention, (5) get young people in government, (6) overhaul the pay and classification system, (7) invest in the HR workforce, (8) create a workforce culture that embraces technology, innovation and collaboration, (9) make diversity, equity, and inclusion a central part of workforce strategy, and (10) continue oversight and get to know federal employees. These strategies, like those provided by the CIO Council, are viable tools in an agency’s arsenal for the immense task of modernization and development of a robust tech workforce.

Other general best hiring practices recommended by experts include using competency-based job posting announcements, commercial platform recruitment, job fairs, hackathons, and SME-based assessment processing, as well as using direct hiring authorities. The 2020 CIO Council report also advises that agencies should improve IT career mobility and flexibility by altering compensation grade restrictions to compete with private sector salaries, promoting rotation programs, and supporting interagency detail opportunities. An example of these suggestions being implemented is the adoption of the GS-2210 job series in June 2001, which replaced the previous GS-034 series and provided hiring tools that, “cover[] two-grade interval administrative positions that manage, supervise, lead, administer, develop, deliver, and support (IT) systems and services.” This flexibility and willingness to increase compensation for in-demand employees are incredibly important to incentivize public-service-oriented applicants to seriously consider federal work as a viable alternative to lucrative private sector work and alternative career options.

Additionally, a 2017 study found that seventy percent of IT professionals that joined digital services teams within the government listed an interest in public service as a factor in joining. Interviewees also often mentioned innovative digital services teams, such as GSA’s 18F, more than any other topic in the primary issue area of the application. This revelation demonstrates that young tech talent is interested in public service and in supporting agency missions—a key advantage that agencies can use as part of their branding and recruitment strategy in the competition for tech talent.

Federal government digital service teams, including the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), GSA’s 18F office, and GSA’s Centers of Excellence (CoE), all can and should be leveraged to support agency IT projects. USDS was created in 2014 to change the federal approach to technology, bringing together top talent from fields such as engineering, design, and government service. Likewise, 18F can be contracted using interagency agreements and regularly provides IT services or assists with IT procurement. CoE has five functional teams focused on cloud adoption, contact center, customer experience, data analytics, and infrastructure optimization. These different teams bring together IT professionals from GSA with agency detailees and private industry professionals, creating innovative work environments and tailored IT procurement solutions. These kinds of services should be used whenever possible to leverage the existing expertise of specialized federal government personnel.

D. Using Telework to Recruit New Talent and Retain the Existing Workforce

One major workplace change that has accelerated in the last few years is the increasing popularity and necessity of hybrid, digital work, and remote work options within the federal government and in the private sector. Nina Albert, commissioner of the Public Buildings Service at the GSA has pointed out that, while the GSA has been using a hybrid model for over a decade, the pandemic forced the agency to reevaluate which positions qualify for remote work, with rough estimates that six percent of the GSA workforce are currently fully remote, ten percent are onsite five days a week, and the rest work on hybrid schedules. Albert testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management, indicating that she sees an opportunity for the federal government to reevaluate its real estate portfolio to make better use of underutilized facilities and potentially consolidate spaces. This option presents several challenges and opportunities as these forms of work are expected to continue long after the pandemic. Agencies must decide what kind of workplace they are planning for in the future and how they plan to prioritize their critically valuable employees in these new environments. Even before the pandemic, remote work was becoming increasingly common in the federal government, with OPM reporting that twenty-nine percent of those eligible for telework within the federal government utilized it in 2012 and fifty-one percent did so in 2016. The pandemic has shifted work norms farther into the digital realm, replacing routine office work with collaborative online environments that agency personnel use to continue to effectively meet mission goals.

On the flip side, President Biden’s State of the Union Address illustrates the pressure of federal government workers to return to in-person operations, with President Biden saying, “It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again. People working from home can feel safe to begin to return to the office. We’re doing that here in the federal government. The vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person.”

Normalizing and encouraging telework, which many private sector employers have already done, can help agencies overcome some of the other barriers to modernization that were highlighted by the CIO Council report, including the length and difficulty of the recruiting process, the compensation structure within government, and structural limits to career mobility within government.

As the nation’s largest employer, the federal government is in a unique position to take advantage of this change in workstyle. OPM’s 2021 Guide to Telework and Remote Work in the Federal Government explains that “OPM is encouraging agencies to strategically leverage workplace flexibilities such as telework, remote work, and alternative/flexible work schedules as tools to help attract, recruit, and retain the best possible workforce.” OPM Director Kiran Ahuja also sent out a memo to agency heads announcing the report, in which he commented on how COVID-19 telework has cleared the path for increased remote work, writing , “Agencies demonstrated that they have been able to continue to carry out their missions effectively. As a result, agencies now have an opportunity to revisit how they were operating prior to the pandemic and leverage lessons learned to integrate telework and remote work into their strategic workforce plans.” The guide encourages agencies to codify remote work and alternative work arrangements and to expand use of the practice to attract top candidates and to better prepare for workplace contingencies.

The legislative background of telework dates to the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, which altered federal telework dramatically. The Act provides the most comprehensive view of federal agency telework, explaining the role of OPM, GSA, FEMA, and NARA in this area. More specifically, 5 U.S.C. § 6501(3) defines the term “telework” as “a work flexibility arrangement under which an employee performs the duties and responsibilities of such employee’s position, and other authorized activities, from an approved worksite other than the location from which the employee would otherwise work.” Each year, OPM analyzes each executive agency’s telework progress to create the Status of Telework in the Federal Government Report to Congress.

Telework comes with several potential drawbacks, including heightened and new security risks by creating numerous potential vulnerabilities, many of which may be difficult to monitor. Recent emphasis has been placed on creating a zero-trust environment, which is built assuming breaches will occur and seeking to limit an attacker’s access and mitigate damage. NIST develops guidelines and requirements for federal agency information security and has recently promoted the concept in their recent telework guides. This concern will be an ongoing issue to battle as more employees continue to work online outside of secure office buildings and facilities.

However, telework remains one of the most viable tools that can be leveraged by the federal government to improve worker experience and to recruit new young tech talent. OPM’s telework guide also highlights how teleworking can aid recruitment and retention by offering attractive flexibility to prospective applicants, allowing those who live farther away from worksites to consider federal employment because they would not need to commute long distances every day of the work week. Remote work also provides opportunities for those who are disabled or unable to work in person, and it could also allow workers who are nearing retirement to have an easier transition that helps maintain institutional knowledge. Telework also has the advantages of opening the door to creating a geographically dispersed workforce, it can reduce real estate costs, and it has been shown to aid in productivity and provide additional protections for the continuity of operations in the event of geographically-dependent emergency events. For these reasons, hybrid, telework, and flexible work arrangements should be utilized to the maximum extent practicable by agencies seeking to modernize and attract top talent.

VI. Conclusion

In the urgent effort to modernize, agencies face a number of serious challenges and dilemmas, from securing essential information and maintaining operations in the event of cyberattacks, to securing IT products and services through procurement. They must budget for modernization and adapt to changing workstyles to accommodate the desires of a modern workforce while recruiting and training tech talent. A successful attempt to modernize requires bridging gaps in funding and talent to implement new and evolving technologies.

By utilizing the solutions described above, agencies can work towards developing a more robust and effective federal tech workforce. The most powerful of these solutions is the increased use of remote work and a complete overhaul of the current recruiting system. By making the federal government a flexible mission-driven environment, agencies can better compete for top talent, even if matching private-sector pay scales is impossible. While each of the potential solutions listed above may not be appropriate in every situation, they provide agencies with an arsenal of tools to develop and modify plans to modernize in accordance with the Biden administration’s priorities.