The end of the Cold War resulted in a dramatic decline in employment at national security agencies, presenting a major challenge, said Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.
"That, combined with the retirement of baby boomers [starting] around 1990, resulted in the loss of a lot of our higher-level government employees," Negroponte said in a speech at the Excellence in Government conference in Washington, an event sponsored by Government Executive.
The deputy secretary added, however, that he is "very encouraged" by the intelligence community's recruiting efforts. Negroponte served as the country's first director of national intelligence before moving to the No. 2 role at the State Department earlier this year.
"We have very capable people applying to enter these services, and I'm very optimistic about the future leadership of our national security institutions within the government," he said.
Negroponte's remarks came in response to a question referring to an earlier speech at the conference, in which Comptroller General David M. Walker said there is a "leadership deficit" across the federal government.
Walker cited concern over a potential retirement wave, with two-thirds of the federal workforce eligible to retire over the next decade. He argued that in order for the government to recruit and retain top talent, it must work to modernize its personnel and pay systems.
Walker said the Government Accountability Office, which he heads, has had great success with its new pay system, adding that GAO is the only agency that does not have any employees on the decades-old General Schedule pay system under which many civil servants work.
But GAO's system has come under recent scrutiny from lawmakers, who are curious as to why 308 analysts did not receive the pay raise last year that Walker had promised them.
He defended his actions Thursday, however, arguing that the GS system's pay ranges are based on an outdated methodology. He said that a market-based pay study by the Watson Wyatt consulting firm found that about 10 percent of GAO analysts were paid above market rates, deeming them ineligible for a pay hike last year.
"There's no easy way to tell somebody you're paid above market," Walker said. "We made some tough choices … they were not universally popular, but they were the right thing to do."
Though Walker admitted that GAO has made some mistakes in implementing the pay system, he said building it marked an essential step in recruiting and retaining the talent GAO needs and will need in the future.
"We did it to make sure we had a system that properly rewarded our people, while being affordable and sustainable over time," he said.