Issue Briefs

Following is an article in a recent MSPB publication on separate surveys it conducted of federal employees regarding the skills that their job best allows them to work and regarding the skills most needed for their work—both of which put cooperation, analysis and organization at the top.


Having the right skills and abilities to do their jobs is critical to the success of Federal employees. Not only do these competencies drive job performance, but they may also influence workplace culture and values. When many agency jobs require analytical ability, for example, that agency will hire for and develop this competency in its workforce. The evidence of this emphasis may be reflected in employees’ interest in solving problems, exploring new technology, using data and evidence to make decisions, and other activities that appeal to those with analytical skills. Thus, analytical skills will have become part of the agency’s culture as well as a job-related competency.

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The Merit Systems Protection Board’s (MSPB) 2011 report Making the Right Connections: Targeting the Best Competencies for Training examined how job-related competencies are acquired by agencies through employee selection, training, and development. In the most recent Merit Principles Survey (MPS) in 2021, we extended this research by asking respondents across Federal organizations which skill or ability their agency allows them to use best on the job—an indication of which competencies seem most valued in their workplace. Responses to this open-ended question were classified into eight competency categories. These categories are based on a multi-occupation analysis designed to identify a core set of general competencies which enable an employee to do related tasks. They include leading and deciding (leadership), supporting and cooperating (cooperation), interacting and presenting (influence), analyzing and interpreting (analysis), creating and conceptualizing (creativity), organizing and executing (organization), adapting and coping (adaptability), and enterprising and performing (ambition).

The dark blue bars in the chart indicate the percentage of respondents describing a best-used skill or ability in each competency category. The competencies most often identified were cooperation (28 percent), analysis (24 percent), and organization (23 percent). The other five competencies were less often identified. Because respondents were asked to identify a single skill or ability, the competency percentages total 100 percent.

The light blue bars present data from an earlier MPS in 2016. They show the percentage of respondents who reported using each competency to a great extent in their most important job tasks. The 2016 data supports the relative importance of cooperation, analysis, and organization to a large portion of Federal work and suggests that adaptability and leadership may also be important. Because respondents rated the importance of each competency individually, the percentages across all eight competencies do not total 100 percent and are not directly comparable across the two surveys. However, the competency rankings are very similar in these two data sources.

Across both surveys, our data suggest that cooperation, analysis, and organization are the competencies most characteristic of the Federal workforce. Given the relationship between competencies and workplace culture, and the role of both in attracting applicants, this information could be used to inform recruitment practices. Agencies and applicants might both be well served by realistic job preview statements in job announcements that showcase these competencies relative to others.

Another way to use this information is for agencies to compare their results to the competencies critical to the mission. For instance, if adaptability is needed to do the work, but employees do not think it is an important competency, then the agency should determine if a gap exists and how to fill it. Agencies can also compare their results to the organizational culture they are trying to achieve. If an agency wants to build a culture of creativity and innovation, for example, but its employees perceive these competencies are not valued in the workplace, then the agency should evaluate how to change course and integrate those values into the organization.

Agencies might also consider this approach as they conduct their own job analyses. Asking about most valued abilities might reveal patterns that can help agencies identify their own characteristic competencies. Findings can assist each agency as they compete with the private sector—and with each other—for workforce talent.

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