Better Pay Not the Only Solution to Federal Talent Problems, Says GAO

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A careful consideration of federal pay is an essential part of fiscal stewardship and is necessary to support the recruitment and retention of a talented, agile, and high-performing federal workforce.  But it’s not the only factor. Sustained Attention to Human Capital Leading Practices Can Help Improve Agency Performance, a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office finds that

workforce planning, recruitment, onboarding, compensation, engagement, succession planning, and retirement programs need to be aligned for the cost-effective achievement of an organization’s mission. However, despite some improvements, strategic human capital management—and more specifically, skills gaps in mission critical occupations—continues to be a GAO high-risk area. 

While the federal compensation system may need to be re-examined, Congress has already provided agencies with tools and flexibilities to build and maintain a high-performing workforce. They include, for example:

Hiring Process

GAO reported in 2016 that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and selected agencies had not evaluated the effectiveness of hiring authorities. By evaluating them, of which over 100 were used in 2014, OPM and agencies could identify ways to expand access to those found to be more effective, and eliminate those found to be less effective.

General Schedule (GS) Classification System


The federal government has become more highly skilled and specialized than the GS classification system was designed to address at its inception in 1949. OPM and stakeholders should examine ways to make the classification system consistent with attributes GAO identified of a modern, effective classification system, such as internal and external equity.

Performance Management

Credible and effective performance management systems are a strategic tool to achieve organizational results. These systems should emphasize “a line a sight” between individual performance and organizational success, and use core competencies to reinforce organizational objectives, among other things.

Human Resources Capacity

The human resources specialist occupation is a mission critical skills gap area. Chief Human Capital Officers have reported that human resources specialists do not have the skills to lead strategic human capital management activities. Strengthening this capacity could help agencies better meet their missions. 

Sustained Attention to Human Capital Leading Practices Can Help Improve Agency Performance is based research and analysis GAO primarily issued between June 2012 and March 2017. It focuses on 1) lessons learned in creating a more market driven, results-oriented approach to federal pay, and 2) opportunities, in addition to pay and benefits, that OPM and agencies could use to be more competitive in the labor market and address skills gaps. 

Check out the full, 20-page report for insight and recommendations on how to improve your agency's strategic human capital management efforts. 

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs, as well as ATD's government-focused magazine, The Public Manager. Contact her at 

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