By Mary Margaret Yodzis 

Demographics and technology are changing work and today’s workforce, especially in the government. A panel of thought leaders shared information at AGA’s National Leadership Training in Washington, D.C., Feb.  12-13, 2020, on current employment and technology trends affecting government financial offices and some up-to-the-minute strategies to handle them.

Moderated by Asif Khan, CGFM, CPA, director of financial management and assurance at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the panel explored trends triggered by technological advances, increased reliance on contractors, budget constraints, and a demographic shift in the workforce as baby boomers retire and millennials and younger generations move in. The “forward-looking experts” on the panel, said Khan, examined trend impact on decision-makers and some strategies for success. “We must make the most of existing skills, recruit well, develop talent, keep people motivated and, most importantly, keep skills relevant and fresh for today’s needs and the technologies available. The promise of intelligent machines can only be harnessed by training and reskilling the workforce.”

Based on findings from a study of 2008-2017 government employment data, Shelby Kain, a senior analyst for strategic issues at GAO’s Office of Financial Management (OFM), said the federal workforce became more diverse during this period. While it brings multidisciplinary talents and knowledge, said Kain, diversity also calls for leaders with skills in inclusivity, conflict resolution, and communication. “We found that leaders with these traits were able to foster a culture where employees feel valued, respected and engaged.”

GAO noted a relatively stable retirement rate of 3% per year during the study period and 7-8% per year among senior executives. As for the looming wave in retirement, “what we’re talking about is eligibility to retire,” said Kain, “and that is fairly high in the federal government. On average, about 30% of the federal workforce in 2015 is eligible to retire this year.”

Retirement presents agencies with opportunities and challenges, the panel agreed. One advantage is planning. “You can realign workforce skills or leadership to meet current or emerging mission requirements,” said Kain. But risk remains, particularly at senior executive levels where, in any given year, 60-70% retired or were eligible to retire within five years. “It really brings to light the need for strategic workforce and succession planning to avoid skill and leadership gaps or declines in institutional knowledge.”

Berke Attila, human resources director for Montgomery County, Maryland, said the issue exists in state and local government as well. “We often find ourselves retiring people and then bringing them back under knowledge-transfer contracts,” he said. “Succession planning is a problem because the merit-based hiring process won’t allow us to prepare a successor. Instead, we need to train a larger group of people who then compete for those jobs.”

The GAO study revealed shifting attitudes toward work. Based on these findings, Kain said, today’s workers tend to want:

  • Meaningful work that influences society and makes a difference.
  • Greater autonomy and opportunities to solve complex problems.
  • More control over their work environment, schedules, and access to work-life programs.
  • Career mobility.

Agencies can address the wants, Kain said, by emphasizing their missions and goals when they recruit; connecting daily tasks to overall mission through training, onboarding and performance expectations; seeking employee input; and making sure employees are aware of available benefits. “The desire for career mobility,” she added, “is not just moving up within an organization but also having horizontal mobility through opportunities to try different roles or functions and rotations within and across agencies. It is also builds employee skills and networks in a cost-effective manner.”

Attila described difficulty in recruiting younger people for government work. “We are losing the 20-29 age group because the system requires rigid sets of accomplishments and five to seven years’ experience for many jobs. The requirements were determined a long time ago, but the workforce, the work, and where we work have all changed. We are focusing a lot of energy now on where we are losing candidates. We were focused on who we actually brought in, but now our efforts are on the applicant pool, who we are attracting and then not hiring — and why.”

In order to realign the workforce, Attila said, government employers must recruit students. “We need to start with the colleges and educational institutions around us to give them a taste of public service,” he said. “We must attract people at an early age. We can compete with the private sector by giving students real projects, have them do meaningful work for us, and let them run. We need disruption from the younger generation, who really do things differently.”

GAO OFM chief data scientist Taka Ariga said his agency is looking for “ways to establish fellowships and internships for college students, so we can harness ideas to tackle grand challenges.” Discussions are also underway, he said, to develop data literacy curricula to train newer staff and empower middle managers. “Our team is trying to find ways to persistently apply analytics. It’s a different way of thinking. Digital natives have ideas, passion, and a higher tolerance for potential failure. Our innovation lab provides infrastructure, top cover, and a safe place to experiment with ideas. If something of interest happens there, we can see if it falls within the guidance.”

GAO aims to lead this cultural transformation in the broader oversight community as well. “Part of the challenge is that there seems to be no shortage of ideas but, in many cases, people are reinventing the wheel,” explained Ariga. “Agencies can share methodology and technology. Whatever we do in our innovation lab is shared; it doesn’t stay there. And not just our successes. We intend to write white papers on what didn’t work so others can build upon what we’ve done without starting from scratch.”

Giving younger hires a chance to test ideas is a tool for recruitment and retention, said Ariga. “A lot of times, because of policy and technology constraints, the most common word they hear is no. Often it is not a budgetary or time issue, but they hear no. I’m pinning my hope for the profession on these digital natives to come up with ideas, but they have to have an environment to test them. If something works, we can provide an incentive, like publication, not just promotions and money. While they are important incentives, credit for ideas when they are meaningfully executed carries weight.”