December 4, 2021

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Digital Services: Considerations for a Federal Academy to Develop a Pipeline of Digital Staff

17 min read
<div>What GAO Found 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. According to participants in a roundtable of federal officials and other experts, 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 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. Example of a Digital Service Academy Concept 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. Why GAO Did This Study The U.S. government has a need for digital expertise, and federal agencies have faced challenges in hiring, managing, and retaining staff with digital skills. 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. This report summarizes the perspectives that selected technology leaders shared on (1) federal workforce needs for digital services staff, (2) key characteristics of a digital service academy, and (3) considerations to help ensure federal agencies can absorb graduates of a digital service academy. For more information, contact Candice N. Wright at (202) 512-6888 or WrightC@gao.gov, Taka Ariga at (202) 512-6888 or ArigaT@gao.gov, or Dave Hinchman at (214) 777-5719 or HinchmanD@gao.gov.</div>

What GAO Found

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. According to participants in a roundtable of federal officials and other experts, 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 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.

Example of a Digital Service Academy Concept

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.

Why GAO Did This Study

The U.S. government has a need for digital expertise, and federal agencies have faced challenges in hiring, managing, and retaining staff with digital skills.

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. This report summarizes the perspectives that selected technology leaders shared on (1) federal workforce needs for digital services staff, (2) key characteristics of a digital service academy, and (3) considerations to help ensure federal agencies can absorb graduates of a digital service academy.

For more information, contact Candice N. Wright at (202) 512-6888 or WrightC@gao.gov, Taka Ariga at (202) 512-6888 or ArigaT@gao.gov, or Dave Hinchman at (214) 777-5719 or HinchmanD@gao.gov.

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