Federal agencies have struggled to recruit personnel with critical scientific and technological expertise, leading to skills gaps across the government.
The personnel mobility program helps by temporarily assigning personnel between the federal government and state governments, universities, or other organizations. For example, some agencies have used this program to bring in researchers to lead highly technical projects. However, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says it is unclear how many agencies are using this program to address critical skills gaps.
The four agencies GAO selected for review—the Departments of Defense and Energy, General Services Administration, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration—used the mobility program to bring top scientists, researchers, and professors into the federal government to lead complex and highly technical projects and address emerging issues. Officials also identified a number of other benefits of the program—flexible time commitments for participants of up to two years, ease of administration, and lower costs—compared with other means of gaining skills or expertise.
Despite these benefits, GAO found these agencies used the mobility program infrequently. The number of non-federal participants at selected agencies represented less than one percent of their total civilian workforce in a given fiscal year. Agency officials attributed this to certain limitations, such as a lack of program awareness, reluctance to temporarily lose employees, and salary limits.
The Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) written mobility program guidance states that “non-federal [participants]…may exercise supervision over federal employees.” However, GAO found this guidance does not fully reflect advice OPM provides to agencies that have sought clarity about the supervisory duties allowed, such as those related to performance management and relevant training.
The agencies in GAO’s review managed mobility program-related costs by negotiating cost-sharing agreements with the participant’s home organization. Officials at selected agencies described key considerations that may affect the proportion of the participant’s costs selected agencies would reimburse the home organization. These considerations include time commitment, the distribution of benefits to both the federal government and the participant’s home organization, and salary limits. The selected agencies also vetted mobility program candidates for eligibility, technical qualifications, security, and conflicts of interest.
According to GAO, OPM does not have complete and accurate data needed to track mobility program use. Thus, the watchdog says OPM does not know how often the program is being used across the federal government. GAO has therefore recommended that OPM update its guidance regarding participants supervising federal employees and establish a process and guidance to obtain complete and accurate mobility program data.
OPM responded that it will update the guidance on its website to make clear that non-federal mobility program participants on detail can serve as project leads and perform project management leadership activities such as assigning work, but that it is inappropriate for them to perform other aspects of the federal supervisory function, such as conducting an employee’s annual performance rating.
However, OPM disagreed that it should establish a process and update its guidance to obtain complete and accurate data about the number of non-federal mobility program participants on detail to federal agencies. Among the reasons for disagreement, OPM wrote that establishing new reporting requirements for tracking (non-federal) mobility program participants will create an additional and unnecessary burden on federal agencies, as well as on OPM, and may serve as a disincentive to agencies using the program.