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Business intelligence and the federal brain drain

Sixty percent of the federal government workforce is eligible to retire in the next ten years. How can business intelligence help?

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK

The loss of talent from the ranks of civil servants looms large in the coming years. We have been aware of this for some time but the specific dimensions of the brain drain really deserve our attention. While the aging workforce to a large degree is a reflection of the U.S. population in general – 78 million baby boomers will start celebrating their 65th birthdays come the year 2011 – the direct impact of this on the government workforce is scary.

Here are some numbers:

  • 60% of the federal government workforce is eligible to retire in the next ten years.
  • 90% of the Senior Executive Service (SES) will be eligible to retire in the next ten years.
  • Retirements are projected to peak in 2009, with over 62,000 per year.

These were some of the principal findings presented by Mr. Gabriel Galvan, Principal, MITRE Corp., at a Northern Virginia Technology Council panel I chaired last month focusing on this important topic. He started by asking some key questions, “What is the problem? Will more people retire than will enter the civil service system? Will demand outweigh the needed supply?”

The answers – at least our current attempts to address these issues – were the main theme of the discussion. Other panel members were: Dr. Robert Neilson, Knowledge Management Advisor to the U.S. Army Chief Information Officer, Dr. Michael Kull, Knowledge Management Coordinator, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Angela Styles, Esq., Crowell & Moring, and former Administrator for Federal Procurement Policy, U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

The statistic related to the Senior Executive Service (SES) is particularly distressing since this is the core of the federal government’s top managers. The SES is an elite cadre of specially selected and trained executives that supply the professional leadership for the Executive Branch of our government. The fact that 9 out of every 10 members of the SES is eligible to retire in the coming decade means that the Federal government must invest heavily in selection, recruitment and training in order to replenish their ranks. And this gets into another set of added complications.

The panel made the point that in today's federal workplace, there have to be a number of diverse human resource initiatives that must be simultaneously launched in order to address the net human capital losses. What those initiatives should be and how they should be implemented are going to be a principal topic of discussion in Washington in the years ahead.

Already, the General Accountability Office (GAO), the arm of Congress (Legislative Branch) that serves as watchdog on the performance of the Executive Branch, has identified the Government’s “Human Capital Challenges in the 21st Century” and indicated that there is a lack of priority to address the problem.

In effect, they have pointed out a series of failings within the Executive Branch to address the problem, among them:

  • Agencies lack leadership to address human capital and related transformational issues.
  • The amount of strategic human capital planning, integrated with organizational objectives, is insufficient to meet future challenges.
  • Agencies are not using flexible but uniform approaches to acquire, develop and motivate a workforce in a changing demographic environment.
  • There is too little linking of performance and organizational success with a model that is results-oriented and collaborative.

In addition to this, in a recent survey of Federal managers asking them to indicate what issues would have a major impact on performance in the next two years, the topic of “retiring federal employees” did not rank very high. It registered fourth with only 22% of respondents selecting it as an important matter.

Hiring to replace the retiring workers seemed to be, likewise, a very weighty issue. Here, one of the key barriers appears to be the image of the government workplace and the pay scale. In a study cited by Galvan, he pointed out that close to three quarters of respondents believed that the private sector would attract the “best and the brightest” candidates. Furthermore, almost 60% pointed out that the pay was better in the business sector than in government.

Another set of topics reviewed in the panel had to do with the need to retain knowledge independent of people. This has been one of the important driving forces behind the move toward knowledge management in the last few years. To that effect, both the Army and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission provided important case studies of the problem and their attempted solutions.

Dr. Neilson emphasized the need to figure out not only what information was important to retain, but also what was not. This seems to be critical as large numbers of workers leave government service in general, and the Army, in particular – especially as the whole U.S. defense establishment moves from the traditional posture of “need to know” to one of “need to share.”

Likewise, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission faces the same challenges with the added complications of new interest in nuclear technology. Dr. Kull expounded on this by reminding us that after Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, there had been practically no nuclear reactor licenses awarded in the U.S. But now, with oil at over $100 a barrel, they anticipate dozens of applications for licenses precisely at a time when its most experienced staff is leaving.

Angela Styles placed the spotlight on the acquisition workforce in particular, which had been decimated already as a result of personnel cuts at a time when the federal procurement budgets have increased to more than $400 billion. To that effect, she felt strongly that investments have to be made urgently to increase this segment of the federal workforce.

In general, all panelists agreed that there had to be a focus on working smarter in the future, and this is where outsourcing, knowledge management and business intelligence were highlighted as techniques that will play a key role in easing the problem.

Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

Dr. Barquin is a member of the E-Gov (Electronic Government) Advisory Board, and chair of its knowledge management conference series; member of the Digital Government Institute Advisory Board; and has been the Program Chair for E-Government and Knowledge Management programs at the Brookings Institution. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. Dr. Barquin can be reached at

Editor's note: More government articles, resources, news and events are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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