The federal government faces a severe shortage of qualified technical workers at a time when the delivery of services to citizens and agency missions becomes increasingly centered around IT, a panel of experts warn.
Many talented developers, security specialists and other tech workers have their choice of employers, and government CIOs and hiring managers are often unable to match the salaries of private-sector employers. Couple that factor with a lengthy hiring process and an ossified culture that can leave little room for risk-taking and innovation, and the best and the brightest are more likely to take their talents to Silicon Valley than to sign up for a hitch in Fed Town.
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"The current pipeline is insufficient. That is clear," says Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the New America Foundation, the Washington think tank that hosted the panel discussion.
The event follows on the release of a report commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation examining efforts to bring technology workers into the government and civil society sectors. While highlighting some successes at the federal, state and local levels, the study identified critical shortcomings in the recruiting, hiring and retention practices of government agencies and non-government civil society organizations, touching on compensation, culture and training.
Healthcare.gov Shows Why Feds Need Top-notch Tech Talent
The challenge of bringing top tech talent into the federal government has a fresh urgency following the high-profile failure of the Healthcare.gov insurance portal, the Obama administration's most visible technology endeavor.
"Recent events have underscored the challenges the government has in dealing with technology, in producing technology for the citizenry," says Alan Davidson, a former lobbyist for Google who now directs the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation.
The authors of the Ford/MacArthur study, prepared by Freedman Consulting, agree: "In particular, because Healthcare.gov was built largely by private contractors, questions have emerged about whether government agencies employ enough individuals with the skills to knowledgeably manage outside vendors for extensive technology projects."
In an area such as compensation, federal hiring managers are bound by pay schedules that set caps on how much they can offer job candidates. As a general rule, and particularly in the tech space, government salaries can't compete with what the private sector can offer.
But that's just a number, Slaughter argues, urging government recruiters to do more to inspire young technologists with a message about the potential for their innovations to address capital-letter social challenges in areas such as healthcare or poverty.
Washington Needs to Be More Like Silicon Valley
Agency leaders can help their cause by shifting from what Slaughter calls "the culture of the presumptive no" toward the "presumptive yes" — that is, embracing the Silicon Valley spirit of innovating around a novel idea even if there's no guarantee it will lead to a viable product.
Slaughter, a former top State Department official, draws a sharp contrast between the culture of the tech world — "That's a cool idea; let's see whether that would work" — and that of the nation's capital. "The presumptive yes is not the culture of Washington. That's maybe the understatement of the century."
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Ashkan Soltani, an independent technology consultant who has recently been working with reporters from the Washington Post to help them unspool stories about NSA surveillance based on the Edward Snowden leaks, encountered that culture shock firsthand while doing a stint in government.
Soltani, wearing jeans and sharing the stage with four other panelists in business attire, points out that the tech world of startups and hackathons runs on a very different vibe than official Washington. Developers, like artists, tend to prefer to work on their own schedules and are protective of their creative freedom, Soltani says. In other words, not the type who would take to an officious work environment such as the federal government.
"I think culture is the biggest issue," Soltani says. "Some of it is little things, like time and clothing."
Some of it is bigger things, too, like the logistics of doing your job. Soltani recalls his time as a researcher working at the Federal Trade Commission. Eager to dive into his work, he ran into a bureaucratic mire trying to go through the official channels to get his personal technology operation set up.
"I stole a machine that wasn't being used, formatted it, installed my tools," Soltani says. "That's how I did my research. Because it took six months for me to get my research lab set up. So I would just work around the system."