IT leaders crave flexibility, better OPM guidance to fill skills gaps

Better guidance on direct hiring authorities from the Office of Personnel Management would help agency IT leaders more successfully recruit and hire new talent, says one chief information officer.

The Health and Human Services Department’s IT shop is working with OPM to develop clearer guidance on what agency hiring managers can do to fill open positions, said Beth Killoran, acting CIO at HHS.

“It seems that it’s very nebulous right now,” she said Feb. 18 during the Association for Federal Information Resources Management’s Women in Technology discussion in Washington. “[Many] hiring directors and HR specialists are very risk adverse and because they don’t know what the flexibility with direct hire is. They’re going to the extreme, which unless it’s 100 percent information security, you can’t do it. That’s holding up the ability to be more flexible.”

HHS cyber and infrastructure fields have a 40 percent vacancy rate, Killoran said. The average age for more than 70 percent of the HHS IT workforce is 47.

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She said federal hiring authorities are often so restrictive, that HHS couldn’t bring on the talent and expertise it needed when the agency rolled out — and then overhauled — HealthCare.gov.

“We are the reason there’s an 18F, I will be honest,” she said. “… When you understand and find something that’s working and then you’re hindered to the point that you can’t use the tools that you think are in your toolbox in order to move that ball forward, we’ve created so much bureaucracy that we’ve put ourselves in a corner that we cannot be competitive and we cannot respond quickly enough.”

Though agencies are beginning to see some success from their partnerships with the U.S. Digital Service and 18F, many CIOs can’t fill open positions fast enough.

“The biggest asset any of us have is our people,” Killoran said. “So what I’m trying to do is figure out how to recruit the newest talent and [work] collaboratively with our HR process, because we know it’s broken.”

Clarifying the existing rules on hiring is the goal of OPM’s Hiring Excellence campaign, which launched last month.

In May 2015, OPM gave agencies the authority to use excepted service appointments for digital services experts for up to two years at the General Schedule 11 to 15 levels. And many agencies spent 2015 setting up digital services teams within their own organizations.

The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, is pairing seasoned federal employees with participants in its EPA Innovation Fellowship, said Ann Dunkin, the agency’s CIO.

“We’re putting them in program teams across the agency,” she said. “We’re bringing in both short-term feds, so the folks two to four years, we’re using GSA’s pipeline and we’re using the Digital Service’s pipeline, anyone’s pipeline we can get a hold of.”

EPA is also inviting its fellows and short-term hires to compete for long-term positions. The goal, Dunkin said, is to have those employees stay long enough to learn about the organization and create some sort of change.

“Hopefully in a year, when Greg [Godbout] and I are gone, because we’re both political appointees, there will be enough momentum and enough people already in that organization across the agency that the innovation we’ve started will continue,” she said.

As the White House acknowledged, filling technology and cybersecurity skills gaps is one of the biggest hurdles agencies face as they address ongoing IT challenges and modernize old systems. President Barack Obama requested $62 million to train and recruit new cyber experts under the new Cybersecurity National Action Plan, which he released with his 2017 budget proposal earlier this month.

The money will help, but a successful IT shop starts with the right people — a mix of experienced and new federal employees.

“You need fresh eyes and for that we have a human resources problem in the government,” said Phaedra Chrousos, associate administrator of the General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovation Technologies, and 18F. “We need to be able to attract talent. We have to be able to move talent, and those two things should help us really unstick the status quo.”

And Killoran said agencies still need to find ways to be more creative in their approach, particularly when recruiting and hiring young people.

“We have to show them how what they’re doing applies directly to the mission and give them multiple opportunities,” she said. “Saying you’re going to be in one job for the rest of your life is just not going to work. The folks that are at 47 (years-old) like that, they like the stability. The folks coming in the door want a challenge and a different one every day.”