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 U.S GAO News
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    In Crime News
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    In Crime News
    The United States filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California yesterday under the False Claims Act against Paksn Inc.; Prema Thekkek, one of its owners; and seven skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) owned by Thekkek and/or operated by Paksn. Those seven SNFs are Bay Point Healthcare Center, Gateway Care & Rehabilitation Center, Hayward Convalescent Hospital, Hilltop Care & Rehabilitation Center, Martinez Convalescent Hospital, Park Central Care & Rehabilitation Hospital, and Yuba Skilled Nursing Center.
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    In Crime News
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  • VA Disability Exams: Actions Needed to Improve Program Management
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found In recent years, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has significantly expanded the Veterans Benefits Administration's (VBA) use of contractors to perform disability medical exams instead of relying on Veterans Health Administration (VHA) medical centers. According to VBA officials, VA's policy is to continue using contractors for most exams. GAO previously identified sound practices agencies can use to plan for significant programmatic changes. However, VBA has not applied several of these practices to its plans for allocating workloads among its contractors and VHA medical centers. For example, VBA has not assessed potential risks to capacity and exam quality in allocating the bulk of exams to contractors. Employing such practices could help VBA identify potential risks stemming from this long-term program change and better plan for addressing future workload needs. Percent of Disability Exams Performed by VBA Contractors and by VHA Medical Centers, Fiscal Years 2017-2021 Over time, VA has also permitted contractors to complete exams for more complex disability claims—such as Gulf War Illness—according to VBA officials, but VBA does not conduct targeted reviews specifically to assess the quality of the exam reports completed for these exams. VBA data show that exam reports for selected complex claims were returned to examiners for correction or clarification at about twice the rate that exam reports were returned overall. Disability medical examiners told GAO that these types of exams can be challenging. Without specifically assessing how well contractors perform on exams for complex claims, VBA is missing an opportunity to identify actions that could help ensure veterans receive high quality exams and that exam reports are completed correctly. Why GAO Did This Study This testimony summarizes the information contained in GAO's March 2021 report, entitled VA Disability Exams: Better Planning Needed as Use of Contracted Examiners Continues to Grow (GAO-21-444T). This testimony also builds upon prior GAO reporting on VBA's contract exam program in October 2018 (GAO-19-13).
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  • Retirement Security: DOL Could Better Inform Divorcing Parties About Dividing Savings
    In U.S GAO News
    Although more than one-third of adults aged 50 or older have experienced divorce, few people seek and obtain a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO), according to large plan sponsors GAO surveyed. A QDRO establishes the right of an alternate payee, such as a former spouse, to receive all or a portion of the benefits payable to a participant under a retirement plan upon separation or divorce. There are no nationally representative data on the number of QDROs, but plans and record keepers GAO interviewed and surveyed reported that few seek and obtain QDROs. For example, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation administered retirement benefits to about 1.6 million participants, and approved about 16,000 QDROs in the last 10 years. GAO's analysis of other survey data found about one-third of those who experienced a divorce from 2008 to 2016 and reported their former spouse had a retirement plan also reported losing a claim to that spouse's benefits. Many experts stated that some people—especially those with lower incomes—face challenges to successfully navigating the process for obtaining a QDRO, including complexity and cost. Individuals seeking a QDRO may be charged fees for preparation and review of draft orders before they are qualified as QDROs and, according to experts GAO interviewed, these fees vary widely. These experts cited concerns about QDRO review fees that they said in some cases were more than twice the amount of typical fees, and said they may discourage some from pursuing QDROs. Department of Labor (DOL) officials said the agency generally does not collect information on QDRO fees. Exploring ways to collect and analyze information from plans on fees could help DOL ensure costs are reasonable. Divorcing parties who pursue QDROs often had orders not qualified due to lacking basic information, according to plans and record keepers we surveyed (see figure). Plan Administrators and Record Keepers Reported Reasons for Not Qualifying a Domestic Relations Order (DRO) DOL provides some information to help divorcing parties pursue QDROs. However, many experts cited a lack of awareness about QDROs by the public and said DOL could do more to make resources available to divorcing parties. Without additional outreach by DOL, divorcing parties may spend unnecessary time and resources drafting orders that are not likely to be qualified, resulting in unnecessary expenditures of time and money. A domestic relations order (DRO) is a court-issued judgment, decree, or order that, when qualified by a retirement plan administrator, can divide certain retirement benefits in connection with separation or divorce and as such provide crucial financial security to a former spouse. DOL has authority to interpret QDRO requirements. GAO was asked to review the process for obtaining QDROs. This report examines what is known about (1) the number of QDRO recipients, (2) the fees and other expenses for processing QDROs, and (3) the reasons plans do not initially qualify DROs and the challenges experts identify regarding the QDRO process. To conduct this work, GAO analyzed available data, and a total of 14 responses from two surveys of large private sector plans and account record keepers, and interviewed 18 experts including practitioners who provide services to divorcing couples. GAO is recommending that DOL (1) explore ways to collect information on QDRO-related fees charged to participants or alternate payees, and (2) take steps to ensure information about the process for obtaining a QDRO is accessible. DOL generally agreed with our recommendations. For more information, contact Kris Nguyen at (202) 512-7215 or NguyenTT@gao.gov.
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