The Defense Department is getting smarter about workforce planning — making sure it has the right people with the right skills in the right positions.
But DoD’s five-year strategic workforce plan, released last fall, is short on details in a few key areas, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.
For one thing, DoD has made little progress in determining the mix of contractors, civilians and military members that make up its workforce. And while the Pentagon has improved at identifying critical skills gaps in its workforce, it’s not doing enough to identify the funding necessary to fill those gaps, the watchdog agency reported in its July 9 report.
“A lot of people may wonder why bother to do a strategic human-capital plan? Well, it’s about money,” said Brenda Farrell, director of Defense capabilities and management issues at GAO, in an interview with In Depth with Francis Rose. “If you have a well-developed strategic human-capital plan that identifies your needs and your gaps and where you plan to target in order to carry out your mission, that helps justify the resources that are needed, in terms of numbers of people, as well as funding to pay them, to train them, to recruit and retain them.”
Assessment of workforce needs lacking, GAO says
Since 2010, Congress has mandated that DoD produce a strategic workforce plan that reports on critical skills gaps in its workforce as well as an assessment of the “appropriate mix” of its civilian, military and contractor capabilities, according to GAO. DoD has been producing workforce plans in some form for even longer, going back the past 10 years.
Of 32 required areas, the latest version of DoD’s workforce plan addressed eight of them, partially addressed 19 but did not address five areas.
One of those areas left entirely unaddressed in DoD’s report is an accurate assessment of the mix of military, civilian and contractor personnel that it needs.
DoD’s workforce assessment starts with taking stock of what its military needs are, said Ron Sanders, former chief human capital officer for the U.S Intelligence Community and now vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton.
“Once you’ve got those straight, you can begin to look at the civilian-contractor mix,” he said. “But just think about where we are in the year 2014 vis-a-vis the rest of the world. What are those uniformed requirements? What’s the military force structure we need to protect our national-security interests? And I have to tell you — it’s not a clear picture. It’s pretty fuzzy.”
DoD struggles to count contractors
DoD has also struggled, historically, with measuring the size of its contractor workforce, in particular.
But the strategic workforce plan should be about more than gathering a headcount of only one facet of DoD’s workforce.
“To figure out what the right mix of contractor personnel should be, you not only need to be able to count them, but you need to be able to evaluate the mix of skills they bring to the table,” Sanders said.
DoD has made progress in figuring out how to identify and count contractors, he said, including by the use of a new tool that translates the work of contractors into a contractor-manpower equivalent — similar to the full-time equivalent measure used to track civilian employees.
But it’s another hurdle entirely to glean from contractors the mix of skills the employees working on a particular contract have, Sander said. The way contractors categorize workforce skills don’t always align with the way the government denotes them, he added.
“So, it’s an apples-to-oranges-to-tomatoes sort of comparison,” he said.
Good data is important, Farrell said, since a lack of visibility into one piece of DoD’s workforce makes it difficult to assess the others.
“It’s difficult to look at one workforce in isolation, especially in today’s environment, because DoD is dependent upon all three workforces — whether it’s the military or the civilian or the contractors — to carry out its wide array of missions,” she said.
DoD needs to connect workforce needs to budget planning
Overall, DoD has improved its workforce planning over the years, Farrell said.
“When we started out, I think the title of our report was ‘DoD did not meet most statutory requirements to develop their strategic workforce plan and they have addressed a number of them,” she said.
Still, progress remains mixed.
On the one hand, DoD has grown more expert about identifying mission-critical skills and competencies in the department. But it has lagged in actually identifying where gaps may exist in its current workforce — and the strategies it needs to pursue to fill them, Farrell said.
“Gap-assessment is almost like the diving board for further planning, in terms of once you know where your holes are from those gap assessments, then you can tailor your recruiting and retention strategies,” she said. “So it’s very critical that they do continue to try to do their competency assessments.”
DoD is also failing to connect the dots between its strategic human-capital planning and the budget process, since it’s “missing key funding information,” GAO reported.
For example, the five-year plan “is missing key funding information,” according to GAO. For example, DoD’s plan identified 31 strategies for addressing skill gaps in its workforce but provided detailed funding requirements for a plan to fill those gaps in only one case.
“So, that budget formulation — tying your needs to the budget formulation of what it’s going to take is critical in order for that plan to be realized,” Farrell said.
Without a strategic vision for managing the workforce in place, decisions about the size of the workforce run the risk of being arbitrary and opening up even further gaps, according to GAO.
GAO offers the Pentagon downsizing in the 1990s as a cautionary tale. Those reductions, which included a 47 percent slash to the size of the DoD acquisition workforce, “did not focus on taking a strategic approach to its workforce downsizing and reshaping efforts, which resulted in imbalances to the shape, skills and retirement eligibility of its workforce,” the GAO report stated.