By Aliya Sternstein
December 18, 2006Lawmakers next year plan to push agencies to begin a program that aims to swap federal information technology employees with private-sector employees.
The effort was supposed to have been initiated years ago. The IT exchange program was created by an e-government law four years ago, but no exchanges have occurred to date. There is only one year remaining until the program's congressional authority ends.
Congress adopted the trading idea to enhance the skills of federal IT workers, but the agency charged with regulating the program and reporting results to Congress -- the Office of Personal Management -- neglected to tell Congress that no exchanges have occurred, according to a Government Accountability report released Friday.
The seven participating entities have drafted plans, but only three -- the Commerce, Defense and Homeland Security departments -- have finalized their plans, the report said. Homeland Security, the first to get its plan approved, tried unsuccessfully to negotiate one exchange.
"Agencies will face several challenges in making exchanges, including shortages of employees with key skills and concerns that exchanges could hinder companies' ability to do future business with the government," the auditors' report stated.
Federal ethics requirements, especially financial disclosure rules, could discourage corporate employees from participating.
Another predicament for agencies is the program's marketing, which consists of posts on the USAJOBS Web site. GAO suggests that federal managers advertise the program through the media and make personal contact with companies.
"Given the short time remaining for beginning exchanges, it will be essential to expeditiously address the challenges to enable a significant number of successful exchanges," GAO said.
In a written response, OPM officials said they will continue to promote the program as a tool available to agencies for training the federal IT workforce.
Some outgoing Republican congressional leaders do not view the report as a condemnation but as an opportunity to fix the program. "We hope this report motivates agencies and OPM to kick this important program into a higher gear," said David Marin, the Republican staff director of the Government Reform Committee. "What we can't allow is for this report to prompt some members to reconsider reauthorizing the exchange."
The Senate expressed both encouragement and concern for the program's future. Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, said, "I am disappointed that no exchanges have yet taken place, but I am pleased that the Department of Homeland Security seems to be in the forefront of taking advantage of this program."
OPM agreed with the auditors' recommendation to include in OPM's semiannual reports to Congress the number of exchanges accomplished. "With this information," Collins said, "Congress can make an informed decision about whether to extend authority for the program when it expires."
By Aliya Sternstein
December 18, 2006