GAO faulted the Office of Personnel Management for failing to provide leadership on key personnel challenges.

GAO faulted the Office of Personnel Management for failing to provide leadership on key personnel challenges. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

GAO: Federal Human Capital Management has Regressed Over Last Two Years

The government watchdog agency faulted a lack of leadership at OPM for the failure to address gaps in critical skills and other federal workforce issues.

The Government Accountability Office reported Tuesday that the federal government’s efforts to address skills gaps at agencies and other workforce planning issues have foundered over the last two years.

The federal watchdog agency released its biannual High Risk List, a 300-page report of more than 30 issues across the government that present potential liabilities of at least $1 billion. In this year’s edition of the report, GAO removed the Defense Department’s support infrastructure management from the list, and added two new issues: efforts to prevent, respond to, and recover from drug misuse, and emergency loans for small businesses.

The report found that the federal government’s efforts to address critical skills gaps in its workforce and improve other workforce planning efforts actually regressed since 2019, primarily due to the fact that leadership commitment to the issue “declined.” Auditors noted that from 2019 until 2021, the Office of Personnel Management had three different directors, only one of whom was confirmed by the Senate.

“As of January 2021, OPM has been led by an acting director for 18 of the last 24 months,” GAO wrote. “The absence of Senate-confirmed leadership meant the federal government lacked the attention from the highest levels needed to address longstanding and emerging skills gaps.”

Additionally, OPM cancelled its annual human capital review meetings, which are required by federal regulations, with agencies last year, reportedly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“OPM did hold weekly government-wide teleconferences to share information and strategies on current human capital challenges,” the report stated. “However, the regulation-required annual human capital reviews are important to show agency’s commitment to addressing this issue and holding agencies accountable for taking action to close skills gaps.”

Human capital management is a particularly important element of the high risk list because it has a cascading effect on other issues that are scrutinized as part of the report. According to GAO, the critical skills gap plays “a significant role” in more than half of the issues included in the list, particularly those dealing with cybersecurity.

“I’m also concerned about the state of the federal workforce,” said Comptroller General Gene Dodaro at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday. He noted that “22 of the issues on the list are there because of skills gaps and critical shortages of both the numbers of people and the types of skills they need, and I don’t think the federal government’s workforce is well postured to meet 21st century challenges.”

Dodaro said that previous administrations’ solutions to leadership vacancies at OPM—both the Obama and Trump administrations at some point made the Office of Management and Budget’s deputy director for management the acting director of the HR agency—also may have exacerbated the government’s response to high risk issues and crises.

“In the last two administrations, both had to double hat the deputy director for management with the director of OPM, which diluted the attention of the deputy director for management,” Dodaro said. “That’s one of the reasons OMB has lost its focus over time. There’s also a statute on performance management in government that requires OMB to do a portfolio analysis of any area identified by GAO as a high risk area, and so far it has not complied with that requirement.”

Last week, President Biden announced that he would nominate OPM veteran Kiran Ahuja to lead the agency. In a call with reporters, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who serves as ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said that the panel is processing the paperwork associated with her nomination.

“We will of course process that person in the normal process,” Portman said. “We’ve got to get the papers first, and I think we just received them, so we’ll be proceeding on that one.”

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., chairman of the committee, noted that the issue of human capital management, particularly in the IT and cybersecurity field, has been on the high risk list for 20 years.

“After more than 20 years of laws and guidance that prioritized the need to recruit, expand and maintain a strong cohort of cybersecurity and IT professionals, strengthening our cyber workforce continues to be an ongoing and significant challenge,” Peters said. “Many agencies still do not even prioritize IT and cybersecurity workforce planning, which is somewhat shocking given the importance of it.”

Dodaro lamented his difficult struggle to get agency leaders to focus on the issue, noting that “the whole thing is kind of baffling.”

“Every year, I send a letter to each major head of agencies and departments outlining priority recommendations that they need to implement, and the cybersecurity workforce is always on there,” he said. “But if you go and try to talk to anyone about it—you know, former Sen. John Glenn, he would say that some of these management issues are like watching mud dry. A lot of managers don’t’ understand the issues and the importance of it.”