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The Best Laid Plans

While several federal agencies have or are working to address cybersecurity workforce planning, all face challenges in defining cybersecurity work and filling highly technical positions, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.

The report, issued Tuesday, found that five of eight agencies, including the Defense and Homeland Security departments, have established plans or other activities addressing cybersecurity workforce planning. Yet all of the agencies reviewed by GAO faced challenges in determining the size of their cyber workforce due to variations in how work is defined and the lack of an occupational series for cybersecurity.

For example, all agencies had defined the roles and responsibilities necessary for cybersecurity work, but such roles did not always align with the guidelines issued by the federal Chief Information Officers Council and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, GAO found.

Agencies also reported difficulty in filling highly technical positions, challenges with the length and complexity of the federal hiring process and discrepancies in compensation across agencies. In addition, some agencies used incentives to recruit and retain cyber workers, but none of them had metrics in place to measure the effectiveness of those incentives, GAO found.

GAO also noted differences in training and development requirements and programs at various agencies. Cyber workers at the Defense and Commerce departments, for example, are required to obtain certifications and fulfill continuing education requirements, GAO noted, but other agencies use an informal or ad hoc approach to identifying required training.

The Obama administration in 2010 launched a nationwide cybersecurity education program designed to bolster cyber awareness, education and training. The program -- the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education -- aims to improve the cyber talent pipeline and the recruitment, retention and training of government and private sector cyber professionals. Earlier this month, the administration released a draft cybersecurity workforce framework that is available for public comment.

But GAO noted that the NICE program lacks plans defining tasks and milestones to achieve its objectives, a clear list of agency activities that are part of the initiative and a means to measure the progress of each activity. And while many agencies like NIST, DHS and the Office of Personnel Management, have taken steps to define skills, competencies and responsibilities required for federal cybersecurity work, most of those efforts overlap and there are no plans in place to promote the use of these efforts by individual agencies, GAO found.

In addition, the government's Scholarship for Service program, run by the National Science Foundation, is a useful source of new federal cyber talent, but the program lacks data on whether participants remain in the government long-term, GAO noted.

GAO recommended that agencies better collaborate on cyber workforce planning efforts and develop governmentwide strategies for tracking and defining cybersecurity work, implementing training standards and measuring progress.

"Threats to federal information technology infrastructure and systems continue to grow in number and sophistication," the report states. "The ability to make federal IT infrastructure and systems security depends on the knowledge, skills and abilities of the federal and contractor workforce that implements and maintains these systems."

Wired Workplace is a daily look at issues facing the federal information technology workforce. It is published on Nextgov.com. Click here to read the latest entries.

Reporter Portrait for GovernmentExecutive.com

Brittany Ballenstedt writes Nextgov's Wired Workplace blog, which delves into the issues facing employees who work in the federal information technology sector. Before joining Nextgov, Brittany covered federal pay and benefits issues as a staff correspondent for Government Executive and served as an associate editor for National Journal's Technology Daily. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Mansfield University and originally hails from Pennsylvania. She currently lives near Travis Air Force Base, Calif., where her husband is stationed.

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