Issue Briefs

Following are key sections of a GAO report examining major issues and trends affecting federal employment and potential responses.

We and others have identified challenges facing the federal human capital system’s ability to recruit, retain, develop, and engage workers, both today and in the future. For example:


• Classification system. The General Schedule classification system—which defines and organizes federal positions, primarily to assign rates of pay—has not kept pace with the government’s evolving requirements.

• Recruiting and hiring. Federal agencies need a hiring process that is applicant friendly and flexible, and meets policy requirements.

• Pay system. Employees are compensated through an outmoded system that (1) rewards length of service rather than individual performance and contributions, and (2) automatically provides across-the-board annual pay increases, even to poor performers.

• Performance management. Federal agencies have faced long-standing challenges developing modern, credible, and effective employee performance management systems and dealing with poor performers.

• Employee engagement. Agencies can improve employee engagement and performance through analysis and sharing of promising practices. Employee engagement is generally defined as the sense of purpose and commitment employees feel toward their employer and its mission.

We identified key trends in agency operations and attitudes toward work that are affecting how federal work is done and, consequently, the skills and competencies that workers need to accomplish agency missions. These trends will require a federal workforce that can better adapt to and leverage constantly evolving technology and mission requirements. They will also require a federal workforce that can effectively collaborate and partner with workers both within and outside of the federal sector to achieve national policy objectives.

Technological Advances


Technological advances will change the way work is done. Advances in automation, artificial intelligence, robotics, and information and communication technology have the potential to accelerate changes in federal work beyond any past experience, but they also involve risks. Advances in automation and robotics are changing the way that work is done by altering the balance between what tasks are completed by humans and those completed by machines. The federal workforce will need to develop new skill sets and expertise to effectively utilize and manage these technological advances.

Increased Reliance on Nonfederal Partners

An increased reliance on nonfederal partners to achieve policy goals will require new skills and competencies for which agencies will need to identify, recruit, and hire. Increasingly, the federal government works with state and local governments, as well as other partners, to achieve a wide range of policy goals. The federal government uses grants as a tool to achieve national priorities through nonfederal partners, including state and local governments, educational institutions, and nonprofit organizations.

Fiscal Constraints

Increasing fiscal constraints require agencies to reevaluate and reprioritize what the federal government does, how it does business, and, as appropriate, who conducts its business. The nation is on a long-term, unsustainable fiscal path. We have previously reported that the federal government is spending far more money than it is collecting and is projected to do so going forward. Further, fiscal pressures have already begun to affect the management of the federal workforce, including decisions to hire, retain, train, contract, and collaborate. Without careful attention to strategic and workforce planning and other approaches to managing and engaging personnel, the reduced investments in human capital may have lasting, detrimental effects on the capacity of an agency’s workforce to meet its mission.

Evolving Mission Requirements

Evolving mission requirements challenge agencies to adapt their work and workforces as they respond to policy shifts, technology changes, and resource constraints affecting their work.


Changing Demographics and Shifting Attitudes towards Work

Changing demographics and shifting attitudes towards work may require new skills to manage a diverse workforce that seeks purpose, autonomy, and career mobility. We found increases in the percentage of federal employees who had a disability, identified as a minority, were veterans, or who held an advanced degree over the past 10 years. This increasing diversity should help provide agencies with the requisite talent and multidisciplinary knowledge to accomplish their missions. While the percentage of federal employees 40 years and older remained relatively flat, the federal workforce had a higher percentage of individuals who are 40 and older compared to the U.S. employed civilian labor force. The federal workforce had a higher percentage of people with a disability, who were veterans, or held an advanced degree.

Given these trends, key talent management strategies can help agencies better manage the current and future workforce. These strategies are all within agencies’ existing authorities:

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.

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

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.

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