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We Can Work It Out: Identifying Federal Workforce Challenges and Opportunities


We Can Work It Out: Identifying Federal Workforce Challenges and Opportunities

Censeo and the Partnership for Public Service recently conducted a workshop, “A Solid Foundation: Workforce Planning for Today and Tomorrow,” and engaged federal employees in evaluating their current workforce, planning for the future, and developing action plans to address challenges to implementing a successful workforce modeling program. The attendees – representing over 15 federal agencies – were highly engaged and invested in identifying challenges and barriers to shaping their workforces to execute their agencies’ missions more effectively.

All of the attendees were involved in some capacity with workforce planning efforts, in various stages – from trying to understand what gaps in their current workforces posed the most risk to them being able to successfully carry out their missions in the future, to implementing hiring and training plans to address gaps that had already been identified. The participants represented a diverse set of organizations – some were focused on right-sizing organizations with numbers in the dozens, while others were trying to create transformational plans for workforces with more than 10,000 employees.

Recognizing there is no one-size-fits-all approach, a range of methodologies were discussed – from Role Mandating, whereby agencies build an optimized and right-sized organization from scratch by matching the ideal set of job occupations and competencies with their mission sets, to Process Mapping, to heavily analytic Predictive Modeling that identifies drivers of workload and produces granular forecasts of the activities that will need to be performed as those drivers change over time. While these approaches vary in process, they share the same goals: making sure the right people with the right skills are in the right place in the future to execute agency missions effectively, even while missions evolve and fluctuate.

A few key challenges emerged that seemed to resonate with all of the attendees:

  • The ‘tyranny of the future.’ Thinking towards the future in developing an optimization plan for any project should never be discounted. Often, though, agencies create five- or ten-year plans without acknowledging urgent needs to address current challenges. Stakeholders at the workshop wondered how to plan for the future while still taking action on current inefficiencies and imbalances in the workforce. Most agreed that their workforces had evolved over time without ever stepping back at the enterprise level and determining how the ideal workforce would be composed – what can be done quickly to better align the competencies we have available to us with our workload *right now*?
  • The change management requirement. Several participants discussed struggling with getting all of the necessary stakeholders on board to implement a successful effort. After all, a successful and impactful workforce planning effort can’t be carried out if all of the elements within the organization won’t participate. How do we build the platform for change? How do we make sure leadership’s prioritization of this effort cascades down throughout the agency? How do we overcome the “this too shall pass” mentality that creates a powerful bias to stay on the sidelines?
  • Ongoing budget uncertainty. Participants openly questioned how they could possibly plan for optimizing their workforces without knowing their budgets in the coming years. While this ‘new normal’ presents clear risks, most agreed that prioritizing the skills in the workforce that effectively support execution of the most critical elements of an agency’s mission has only become more important in recent years.

In breakout sessions facilitated by Censeo and the Partnership, it became apparent that while these stakeholders were frustrated by the barriers to implementing workforce modeling plans, they were determined to find solutions and create real, tangible change for their organizations. Learning from one another, we identified key takeaways and next steps to making these ideas a reality:

Need to define a realistic vision of what success looks like. No one sets up a workforce modeling and analysis program with the intention of failing: but, what, exactly, does “success” look like? Every agency, department, and organization will define success differently, and asking the correct questions from the very beginning will help guide your program and ensure you reach your end goal. Where do I need to allocate the staff that I already have? How do changes in mission affect workforce needs? What is the actual work that needs to get done? By determining outcomes and objectives early – and making sure at least some of them are realistic and achievable (the pace of change ensures no workforce will ever be perfect), agencies will be much more likely to find meaningful results from your workforce modeling efforts.

The change management requirement is huge. Successful workforce modeling takes more than a good idea: it requires deliberate actions and implementation. Without support from both horizontal and vertical agencies and departments, even the best workforce modeling ideas risk never making it past the initial planning meeting. Once an organization has developed a roadmap for optimizing workforce, achieving intra-agency buy-in is crucial to success. Reaching out to senior executives leverages the top-down power necessary to enacting policy change, while engaging with more entry-level staff creates consensus within an agency, and motivates employees to be an active part of an organization’s workforce modeling efforts. No one person can undertake a reorganization of an entire agency, and having champions at every step of the process is vital to program success.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s no secret that change is a gradual process in the federal government, but this slow-but-steady process shouldn’t deter you from taking those first steps towards implementing workforce modeling actions. Like a marathon, the process will require a good deal of preparation, and some stretches will be more difficult than others. Just remember, though, that by carefully planning your workforce modeling “race,” and engaging champions throughout your agency or organization, you’ll have support at every step of the way, cheering you to the finish line.

Jeff Jeffress is a managing director at Censeo Consulting Group with more than ten years of strategy and business transformation experience in the private sector and federal government. Learn more about Censeo’s workforce modeling practice:

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