Future Tense

The Biden Administration Needs to Revamp the Federal Tech Workforce

Three women sit in a conference room.
The federal government needs a younger, more diverse tech workforce. Christina @ wocintechchat.com/Unsplash

This article is part of the Future Agenda, a series from Future Tense in which experts suggest specific, forward-looking actions the new Biden administration should implement. On Wednesday, Feb. 3, at noon Eastern, Future Tense will host an online event to discuss what science, technology, health, and energy priorities the Biden administration should pursue. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Half of the federal IT workforce is either over the average federal retirement age of 61 or will be within the next 10 years, according to a recent federal report. There’s no shortage of young technical talent interested using cutting-edge skills like service design, user research, product management, data science and software development for public sector work—yet only about 3 percent of federal IT workers are under 30. And just look to historical examples of the failed Healthcare.gov rollout in 2013 or the State Department’s visa system failure in 2015 to show why data and tech skills are necessary for implementing any national policy or effort].

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

As government seeks to fill the seats of the retiring IT workforce, we can recruit newly skilled workers who are not grounded in the “IT” skills of the past and more rooted in the “tech” skills of today such as service design and product management, and put them into federal careers with updated job titles and new career pathways that improve how government works. A Biden administration can reconstitute the technical workforce by updating the current IT job classifications that have been in place since 2001 and recruiting top technologists who can ensure our government workforce can deliver services in a digital age. In order to serve all Americans, this effort must include a focus on recruiting a diverse and representative new wave of workers with lived experiences interacting with public systems.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Younger workers are maturing into professional careers at a time when public service is making a comeback. As government catches up and becomes more tech-literate, it can compete with the private sector by providing more meaningful career alternatives.

Meanwhile, universities are turning out graduates eager to use their UX, design and analytics skills, as well as their lived experiences, in service of a better future. The Public Interest Technology University Network, which we at Georgetown University participate in, invests in a new generation of tech-talented, service-minded workers. (New America and Arizona State University, partners with Slate in Future Tense, are also part of the Public Interest Technology University Network.)

However, the federal government is still set up to hire in the tech landscape of 20 years ago—for instance, by using outdated professional titles. That might seem like a minor issue, but in the federal government, it isn’t. It significantly limits potential applicants’ ability to even find open roles they might be a fit for. When workers trained in product management or user-centered design, say, search USAJOBS.gov, they don’t find positions that fit with their experience—but they do see lots of opportunities in the private sector.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Take data science, for example. In 2012, Harvard Business Review called data science the “sexiest job of the 21st century.” Yet it was only in 2019 that the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees federal job titling, issued a guidance memo allowing agencies to use the data scientist title in hiring. Just this month, U.S. Digital Service announced a new data scientist recruitment effort where multiple agencies can tap into a shared pool of applicants, but those folks will still be technically hired as program analysts. Neither of these pathways creates a dedicated data scientist job classification. Contrast that with LinkedIn, where a quick search turns up more than 20,000 open, mostly private sector, “data scientist” jobs.

The same is true for software developers—“IT Specialist (software developer)”—who are also parentheticals rather than stand-alone professionals in the eyes of the U.S. government.(Compare this with nearly 60,000 “software developer” jobs on a LinkedIn search.) It may seem like a small thing, but it signals a lack of respect for technology careers and the effort it takes to earn these specialized titles and credentials.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Some innovative teams in government, such as the U.S. Digital Service or 18F, have been hiring term-appointed technologists in roles they created such as “innovation specialist” or “digital services expert,” but those titles don’t track with the private sector, either. They’re also informal titles rather than formal occupations listed in the current federal job classification series administered by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. This is a good approach for the short term, but doesn’t set employees up for careers in government—these are temporary jobs without promotion potential or the investment in training and support that comes with civil service roles.

The Partnership for Public Service and the Tech Talent Project have published two reports detailing the need for more technical talent at senior levels in government. Likewise, the nonprofit Coding it Forward has proposed a two-year “Digital Corps” program to bring in recent grads for temporary junior tech roles. To complement that push, the U.S. government needs job titles for all levels to reflect specific roles that have been well-established in the private sector for years.

Advertisement

It isn’t easy to establish new occupation series in government, nor should it be. We shouldn’t create new infrastructure every time we come up with a creative new way to describe work. But we currently have well-established institutions supporting college majors and apprenticeship turning out trained workers by the thousands who have loads of opportunities in the private sector but no place in the public sector—though we definitely need them. We are remiss not to recognize and value those roles. It can start with institutionalizing the titles these workers deserve in the federal government.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Additionally, the federal IT workforce is largely male and, according to a May 2020 report by the Federal Chief Information Officers Council, rates of women in federal IT roles are going down. At the same time, the report also showed that nearly half of millennial workers seek out diverse and inclusive workplaces and recommended the federal government prioritize attracting a more diverse IT workforce. Planning for the future tech workforce isn’t limited to job titles and must also include a focus on representation.

In this moment, we have an opportunity to bring new tech talent into government to fill soon-to-be-vacant roles. More important, we can establish exciting career ladders in public service with the power to make change by designing the recruitment and retention strategies that will ensure a government ready to serve all Americans.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

Advertisement