Science and Technology: Strengthening and Sustaining the Federal Science and Technology Workforce

What GAO Found

Strengthening human capital management at federal agencies, particularly those with science and technology missions, can help agencies build a diverse, highly qualified, and agile workforce. GAO’s past work demonstrates three key areas for strengthening and sustaining the federal science and technology workforce.

Strategic workforce planning to identify gaps and future needs. To successfully implement their missions, agencies need to identify current skill gaps and future needs in their workforce, and select the right human capital strategies to address them. However, GAO’s prior work has identified science and technology workforce strategic planning challenges that agencies have not fully addressed. For example, in October 2019, GAO evaluated major agencies’ implementation of cybersecurity workforce planning strategies for information technology (IT) workers. GAO found that most of the 24 federal agencies had not fully implemented five of the eight key workforce activities that GAO identified because of reasons such as competing priorities and limited resources. GAO recommended that the 18 agencies fully implement the eight key IT workforce planning activities. Thirteen agencies agreed with the recommendation, while the other five expressed a range of views; however, while some agencies have made progress, none have fully implemented the recommendation.

Improving federal pay and hiring. Agencies may experience challenges in recruiting and retaining a diverse, highly-qualified workforce due to differences in pay compared to private sector employers and challenges related to the hiring process. Generally, federal agencies have seven broadly available government-wide special payment authorities to help address recruitment and retention challenges. In December 2017, GAO reported that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) collects data on use of these authorities but had not analyzed how much the authorities help improve recruitment and retention. GAO also reported that the agency may be missing opportunities to promote strategic use of these authorities by providing guidance and tools on assessing effectiveness. Similarly, in August 2016, GAO reported that OPM and hiring agencies had not used hiring data to analyze the effectiveness of hiring authorities. Across these reports, GAO made six recommendations to assess and improve the use of pay and hiring authorities. OPM generally agreed with GAO’s recommendations, and has implemented two of the six recommendations, but has not fully implemented the other four.

Addressing factors that affect the federal work environment. Factors affecting the working environment may also influence agencies’ ability to attract, hire, and retain personnel. For example, GAO reported in September 2020 that individuals who experience sexual harassment are more likely to leave their jobs. Also, in March 2015, GAO reported that impediments to interacting with non-federal scientific peers because, for example, of restrictions on conference participation can be a disincentive to federal employment. Agency officials told GAO that scientists and engineers establish their professional reputations by presenting research at conferences to have their work published and, without such opportunities, researchers may find federal employment less desirable. Addressing such factors could help agencies build and sustain a diverse, highly-skilled science and technology workforce.

Why GAO Did This Study

The federal workforce is critical to agencies’ ability to address the complex social, economic, and security challenges facing the United States. However, across government, mission critical skill gaps are undermining the ability of federal agencies to carry out their missions. Federal agencies face the difficult task of staying apace of advances in science and technology while competing for talent with the private sector, universities, and non-profit research centers. GAO has had long-standing concerns about federal agencies’ strategic human capital management, an issue highlighted in GAO’s High Risk Series since 2001.

This testimony summarizes GAO’s insights based on a wide range of GAO work covering various human capital management- and science and technology-related issues from March 2015 through February 2021. In particular, the statement focuses on (1) workforce planning to help ensure agencies are better positioned to implement their missions; (2) opportunities and challenges to recruiting a diverse, high-qualified science and technology workforce; and (3) factors that can affect the work environment.

For this testimony, GAO selected prior work across human capital management- and science and technology-related topics.

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    In 1996 Congress provided DOD with authorities enabling it to obtain private-sector financing and management to repair, renovate, construct, and operate military housing. DOD has since privatized about 99 percent of its domestic housing. The Department of Defense (DOD) has made progress in addressing weaknesses in its privatized housing program, and GAO has identified additional opportunities to strengthen the program. GAO reported in March 2020 on DOD's oversight and its role in the management of privatized housing. Specifically, GAO found that 1) the military departments conducted some oversight of the physical condition of privatized housing, but some efforts were limited in scope; 2) the military departments used performance metrics to monitor private developers, but the metrics did not provide meaningful information on the condition of housing; 3) the military departments and private developers collected maintenance data on homes, but these data were not captured reliably or consistently, and 4) DOD provided reports to Congress on the status of privatized housing, but some data in these reports were unreliable, leading to misleading results. GAO made 12 recommendations, including that DOD take steps to improve housing condition oversight, performance indicators, maintenance data, and resident satisfaction reporting. DOD generally concurred with the recommendations. As of February 2021, DOD fully implemented 5 recommendations and partially implemented 7 recommendations. DOD should also take action to improve the process for setting basic allowance for housing (BAH)—a key source of revenue for privatized housing projects. In January 2021, GAO reported on DOD's process to determine BAH. GAO found that DOD has not always collected rental data on the minimum number of rental units needed to estimate the total housing cost for certain locations and housing types. Until DOD develops ways to increase its sample size, it will risk providing housing cost compensation that does not accurately represent the cost of suitable housing for servicemembers. GAO recommended that DOD review its methodology to increase sample sizes. GAO has also determined, in a report to be issued this week, that DOD should improve oversight of privatized housing property insurance and natural disaster recovery. GAO assessed the extent to which the military departments and the Office of the Secretary of Defense exercise oversight of their projects' insurance coverage. GAO found that the military departments have exercised insufficient oversight, and that the Office of the Secretary of Defense has not regularly monitored the military departments' implementation of insurance requirements. Without establishing procedures for timely and documented reviews, the military departments cannot be assured that the projects are complying with insurance requirements and assuming a proper balance of risk and cost. The draft of this report, which GAO provided to DOD for official comment, included 9 recommendations, 2 of which DOD addressed in January 2021 by issuing policy updates. The final report's 7 remaining recommendations, including that the military departments update their respective insurance review oversight procedures, will help strengthen DOD's oversight of privatized housing, once implemented. DOD concurred with all of the recommendations. Congress enacted the Military Housing Privatization Initiative (MHPI) in 1996 to improve the quality of housing for servicemembers. DOD is responsible for general oversight of privatized housing projects. Private-sector developers are responsible for the ownership, construction, renovation, maintenance, and repair of about 99 percent of military housing in the United States. GAO has conducted a series of reviews of MHPI, following reports of hazards (such as mold) in homes, questions about DOD's process to determine the basic allowance for housing rates, which is a key revenue source for privatized housing, and concerns about how DOD ensures appropriate property insurance for privatized housing projects impacted by severe weather. This statement summarizes 1) steps DOD has taken to strengthen oversight and management of its privatized housing program, and work remaining; 2) actions needed to improve DOD's BAH process; and 3) actions needed to enhance DOD's oversight of privatized housing property insurance. The statement summarizes two of GAO's prior reports, and a report to be issued, related to privatized housing. For this statement, GAO reviewed prior reports, collected information on recommendation implementation, and interviewed DOD officials. In prior reports, GAO recommended that DOD improve oversight of housing conditions; review its process for determining basic allowance for housing rates; and that the military departments update their housing insurance review oversight procedures. For more information, contact Elizabeth A. Field at (202) 512-2775 or fielde1@gao.gov.
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  • Troubled Asset Relief Program: Treasury Continues Winding Down Housing Programs
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of the Treasury (Treasury) continues to wind down housing assistance programs funded by the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Treasury has extended one program to assist certain program participants who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, although limited program funds remain at this point. As of September 30, 2020, Treasury had disbursed $30.85 billion (95 percent) of the $32.56 billion TARP funds obligated to the three housing programs (see figure). The Making Home Affordable program allowed homeowners to apply for loan modifications to avoid foreclosure. Treasury will continue to provide incentive payments for loan modifications through 2023. The Housing Finance Agency Innovation Fund for the Hardest Hit Housing Markets provided funds to 18 states and the District of Columbia to help struggling homeowners through programs tailored to the state. Treasury extended this program through June 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic's negative economic effects on some program participants. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) Short Refinance program allowed eligible homeowners to refinance into an FHA-insured loan. Under this program, Treasury made TARP funds available to provide additional coverage to lenders for a share of potential losses on these loans for borrowers who entered the program by December 31, 2016. Status of Troubled Asset Relief Program Housing Programs, as of September 2020 aAccording to the Department of the Treasury (Treasury), these funds have been committed to future financial incentives for existing Making Home Affordable transactions, as of September 30, 2020. bRepresents the amount of funds that states and the District of Columbia have drawn from Treasury. cIncludes about $11.6 million in administrative expenses and $10 million of reserve funds, as of September 30, 2020. Treasury will be reimbursed for unused reserve amounts. dAmounts do not add up due to rounding. In response to the 2008 housing crisis, Treasury established TARP-funded housing programs to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure and preserve homeownership. Since 2009, Treasury has obligated $32.56 billion for such housing programs. The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 provided GAO with broad oversight authorities for actions taken related to TARP. This report provides an update on the status of TARP-funded housing programs, as of September 30, 2020. GAO reviewed Treasury program data and documentation, and interviewed Treasury officials. This report contains the most recently available public data at the time of GAO's review, including obligations, disbursements, and program participation. For more information, contact John H. Pendleton at (202) 512-8678 or pendletonj@gao.gov.
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  • Justice Department Settles with New Jersey-Based IT Consulting Company to Resolve Immigration-Related Discrimination Claims
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice announced today that it reached a settlement with Quantum Integrators Group (Quantum), an IT consulting and staffing company based in New Jersey. The settlement resolves claims that Quantum (1) discriminated against a lawful permanent resident by requiring her, based on her citizenship status, to provide unnecessary documentation before it would refer her for an employment opportunity, and (2) routinely required other work-authorized non-U.S. citizens to present unnecessary documents to prove their eligibility to work.
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