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What’s behind the government IT talent problem?

August 01, 2014

Government has a talent problem.

That reality has become abundantly clear on all levels: federal, state and local. The conversation is also multifaceted, from concerns over an aging workforce to worries that government can’t keep pace with fast advances in IT and cybersecurity. 

The latest Center for State and Local Government Excellence annual workforce trend survey continued a recent tradition of grim news on government talent acquisition, highlighting problems on a number of issues such as retirement, professional development and morale. In the study of state and local government human resource managers, “49 percent reported higher levels of retirement in 2013 than 2012” and “22 percent reported employees had accelerated their retirement.”

Trouble on the horizon

In terms of information technology talent, the future is considerably bleak—at least according to a 2013 MacArthur Foundation report titled “A Future of Failure?” Only 4 percent of degree-holders in the public sector have an education in the computational or mathematical sciences—the same for doctoral degrees, as well. There will be a projected (and somewhat steady) 8 percent increase between now and 2018 in historic and projected computer and mathematical science occupations, but there is no sign that government is tapping into this talent. Experts typically identify numerous challenges including (but not limited to) recruitment, compensation and public perceptions of what it’s like to work for government. With generational gaps being a factor, to some potential young recruits it’s probably much more cool to work for, say, Facebook than it is for the Federal Communications Commission.

Beyond that, Harvard Kennedy School research fellow Charles Chieppo also points out “a lack of access to ground-breaking work and a government culture that often doesn't welcome potentially disruptive innovation.”

“Government is also highly bureaucratic and risk-averse, thanks in part to the threat that elected officials might face punishment at the ballot box for any failures,” said Chieppo.

Those types of unflattering perceptions could be also fueled, in part, by a combination of millenials’ views on government institutions (troubling in the context of a discussion on lack of IT in government since the 18-35 crowd is the most technically inclined) and the overall aging of government. Even as federal government investment in IT grows, its workforce continues to be older than its private sector counterpart: an average age of 45.3 compared to 42.3 for the latter, with 66 percent of federal employees over the age of 45. 

In the meantime, that’s forcing government to outsource more for IT talent. For example, nearly 140 federal agencies—according to a General Services Administration study—have increased their purchasing into the GSA’s Networx telecom, data storage and network restoration services by 13 percent from 2013 through 2014. 


But that rate of IT procurement will need to keep pace with innovation trends while simultaneously encouraging them—something government hasn't even come close to achieving yet. Gartner’s Rick Howard argues that government on all levels is “on the front line of transformation” adding “government agencies at all tiers and in every region—national, federal, provincial, state and local—are challenged to remain relevant to citizens in a highly connected, data-saturated world. To meet these challenges, government CIOs must deliver on a digital business strategy that transforms processes, business models and citizen experience while operating within constrained budgets.”

But Howard concedes the difficulty in doing all of the above considering the political, budgetary and ideological constraints of lawmakers in an increasingly polarized policy world.

Forrester’s Jennifer Bellisent weighs in with a hint that it all depends on governments being smart enough to recognize citizens within either the traditional “constituent” format or to view them as “customers.” If public institutions embrace the customer paradigm then “[g]overnments must establish themselves as strong players in the age of the customer—with their ‘customers’ being their citizens and the businesses that operate within their jurisdiction.”

“These empowered citizens are increasing demand for more government transparency, increased operational efficiency, and better government service delivery, ushering in the age of the citizen. Social and mobile technologies have recast citizens' expectations for service, and improved data collection and analysis, coupled with innovative thinking, allow governments to deliver new and more appropriate programs and contacts.”

In lieu of that, the good news for government is that millenials actually ranked federal agencies such as the FBI, the National Institutes of Health, NASA, the Department of State, and the Peace Corps in the top ten of “preferred employers” according to a recent Universum survey. The bad news is that it doesn’t comport with their overall distaste for government, as captured in research from think tanks like Pew, which showed the percentage of millenials that view the feds as wasteful and inefficient grew from 42 percent in 2009 to 51 percent by 2013. In order to attract the right IT talent, government will need to figure out how to make itself a hot place to work—but they need to do it by 2017: the year a third of the federal workforce is eligible for retirement.  

Are you a government agency or contractor looking for IT talent management support? TEKsystems supports that. Check out our Government Services page to learn more. 

Charles Ellison is a senior analyst relations strategist for TEKsystems. He keeps close tabs on changes and public policy shaping the innovation space. He is also a former congressional staffer, senior aide to state and local elected officials and an expert advocacy strategist. You can reach him with questions and comments @twoARguys via Twitter.

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