Issue Briefs

Improving compensation for federal employees is one of the steps GAO cited at a recent House hearing for addressing the government’s problems with recruiting and retaining workers in a tight labor market. Following are excerpts from its statement.

Align human capital strategy with current and future mission requirements. With shifting attitudes toward work, technological advances, and increased reliance on nonfederal partners, agencies need to identify the knowledge and skills necessary to respond to current and future demands. Key practices include identifying and assessing existing skills, competencies, and skills gaps.


In May 2014, we reported that agencies should be aware of existing skills and competencies in their workforce to help inform workforce planning. As one example, the Department of the Treasury CHCO told us that, following the Puerto Rico debt crisis—where it needed to be able to identify the necessary skills to manage the crisis—the agency decided to implement an Integrated Talent Management System to facilitate workforce and succession planning as well as learning and performance management.

Acquire and assign talent. To ensure agencies have the talent capacity to address evolving mission requirements and negative perceptions by some of federal work (e.g., that it is too bureaucratic), agencies can cultivate a diverse talent pipeline through strategic partnerships with academic and other institutions, highlight their respective missions, recruit early in the school year, support rotations, and assign talent where needed.

As one example, consulting firm representatives that we interviewed for our prior work stated that their internship programs are among their most successful practices for cultivating a talent pipeline because the firms can offer full-time positions to rising seniors during the internship. A representative from one consulting firm said that, after experiencing challenges in recruiting on college campuses, the firm built a competitive internship program to promote the firm’s brand and reputation. Participants in the firm’s 10-week program are paid and assigned challenging projects, and successful participants are given job offers upon completion. According to the representative, approximately a quarter of the firm’s workforce is former interns. Similarly, CHCOs and federal employee and management group representatives we interviewed noted that internships are important for establishing a pipeline for recruitment.

The federal government’s Pathways Programs, which consist of the Internship Program, the Recent Graduates Program, and the Presidential Management Fellows Program, were designed to promote employment opportunities for students and recent graduates by providing distinct paths to federal internships and potential careers in government. The Internship Program provides paid opportunities for students (high school, vocational, technical, undergraduate, and graduate) to work in agencies and explore federal careers while still in school. Students who successfully complete academic and program requirements may be eligible for non-competitive conversion to a term or permanent position in the civil service.

In our prior work, we have also reported on the importance of cultivating a diverse talent pipeline through active campus recruiting which includes developing long-term institutional relationships with faculty, administrators and students, and by building a “brand” on campus. Other strategies to expand a talent pool include developing strategic partnerships with such entities as trade schools, apprentice programs, and affinity organizations from across the country.

Another strategy for attracting strong candidates is for agencies to highlight their missions and innovative work, which, according to our expert and CHCO interviews, can help counter negative perceptions of federal employment. For example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provides “Day in the Life” information on its work to promote public awareness of how its everyday tasks tie in with its mission of protecting the United States, according to the DHS CHCO. The DHS CHCO stated that promoting agency mission can be done while cultivating a talent pipeline and assessing applicants’ abilities. The department holds recruitment events where potential candidates can participate in law enforcement-related activities such as fitness testing. The CHCO noted that these events both promote homeland security careers and help prospective candidates determine if a position is a good fit for them.

Incentivize and compensate employees. While federal agencies may struggle to offer competitive pay in certain labor markets, they can leverage existing incentives that appeal to workers’ desire to set a schedule and to work in locations that provide work-life balance. However, agencies do not always promote these benefits and incentives as part of a total compensation package, in part because managers are not always aware of the importance of doing so. Some agencies are addressing this issue by advertising and helping employees use available benefits, work-life balance programs, and other resources. For example, the National Science Foundation offers employees many opportunities to learn about existing benefits, according to the foundation’s CHCO. These opportunities include triannual retirement seminars where employees receive personalized retirement estimates, quarterly financial planning seminars where employees receive a free 1-hour consultation, and annual benefit fairs where employees can learn about various health care providers, the work-life programs, and the employee assistance program.


Our prior analysis of CHCO and expert interviews also found that employees may value different benefits and incentives depending on their stage in life. By better understanding the desires of the workforce at various life stages, agencies can better tailor benefits packages and incentives to their employees. For example, the Social Security Administration’s CHCO said that the agency’s younger workers value work-life and wellness programs, so the agency implemented a health-tracking program and a fitness discount program for all employees. CHCOs also suggested identifying and incorporating the benefits that would be most useful to various groups of employees, such as sabbaticals for midlevel employees or paid parental leave for employees starting families. One CHCO found that her cybersecurity workforce values subsidies for training and additional certifications more than bonus pay.

Further, OPM’s 2018 Federal Work-Life Survey Governmentwide Report found that the number of respondents who anticipate adult dependent care responsibilities in the next 5 years (31 percent) is double the number of respondents with current adult dependent care needs (15 percent). OPM officials stated in light of this change, agencies may need to provide greater workplace flexibilities and other support services to retain talent. Some CHCOs we interviewed for prior work said that they believe that paid parental leave could be a powerful retention tool for federal workers. Representatives from consulting firms that we interviewed said that they have observed positive impacts from these types of benefit programs. For example, representatives from one firm said that providing employees with peace of mind when managing life events helps them feel more committed to the organization.

Engage employees. Engaged employees are more productive and less likely to leave, according to OPM. Agencies can better ensure their workforces are engaged by managing employee performance, involving employees in decisions, and developing employees.

Experts we interviewed for prior work said that employees desire an environment where they can collaborate with their peers and feel a sense of comradery. In contrast, even a small number of poor performers can negatively affect employee morale and agencies’ capacity to meet their mission, according to CHCOs and our previous work. In the 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), 64 percent of federal employee respondents agreed that their supervisor provides them with constructive suggestions to improve job performance and 31 percent agreed that steps are taken to deal with poor performers.

Without effective performance management, agencies risk not only losing the skills of top talent, they also risk missing the opportunity to effectively address increasingly complex and evolving mission challenges. Agencies can make performance management more effective by improving the selection and training of supervisors and managers, creating a “line of sight” between individual performance and organizational results, and implementing meaningful reward programs.

Our prior analysis found that employees seek autonomy in the workplace, meaningful work, and opportunities to achieve results by developing