As the federal government continues its modernization efforts across agencies, it faces a severe shortage of digital expertise in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), data science, application development, cybersecurity, computational biology, and robotics process automation.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to gather perspectives of federal technology leaders on establishing an academy that could provide a dedicated talent pool to help meet the federal government’s needs for digital expertise.
GAO convened a roundtable discussion on October 13, 2021 comprised of chief technology officers, chief data officers, chief information officers, and those in similar roles across the federal government, as well as knowledgeable representatives from academia and nonprofits.
According to the roundtable participants, agencies’ needs for digital services staff vary in urgency and roles, with some needs requiring immediate attention while others are more long-term. In addition, the kinds of work that additional digital services staff could address include updating legacy systems, applying advanced technologies, managing cybersecurity risks, and reimagining service delivery. Currently, according to roundtable participants, agencies try to meet their digital service workforce needs through a mix of civil service hiring, use of contractors, the Intergovernmental Personnel Act Mobility Program, and fellowship and internship programs.
One potential method for developing digital services staff, discussed by the roundtable participants, is the creation of a digital service academy—similar to military academies—to train future civil servants in the digital skills needed to modernize government. Considerations for a digital service academy include the kinds of skills that would be taught and the composition and size of a graduating class, according to roundtable participants. Further, they said digital services staff would need proficiency in both digital skills as well as understanding the functions of government to meet agencies’ needs. The composition and size of a digital service academy could affect how it can meet agencies’ needs.
GAO says agencies can prepare for a pipeline of qualified digital services staff by taking steps such as integrating mission needs into digital service projects, developing professional growth opportunities, cultivating institutional relationships, establishing support networks, and building a data-centric culture, according to roundtable participants. At the same time, participants discussed challenges associated with existing policies, infrastructure, laws, and regulations that may hinder agency recruitment and retention of digital services staff.