The federal government currently employs around 2.1 million people, with the defense and security-related agencies accounting for more than 70% of the entire federal workforce. That number exceeds all private and semi-private businesses in the United States – including Walmart, which currently employs some 2.2 million people worldwide yet only has 1.5 million associates in the U.S.

However, the federal workforce as a percentage of the total American population has shrunk and in absolute numbers it is actually smaller than it was 50 years ago. Unlike many businesses, which can quickly address “employee churn,” the federal government has failed to recruit, hire, and retain employees – especially those with the skills needed to meet the nation’s urgent and complex challenges.

Those are the findings of a Partnership For Public Service  preliminary federal executive survey data released last month. The early results of the 2020 Survey on the Future of Government Service found that 60% of the federal executives surveyed said an inadequately skilled workforce remained a significant obstacle to fulfilling their agency’s mission. Among the chief issues were hiring processes that take too long according to 82% of those surveyed, while 54% cited civil service rules that often prevented agencies from hiring the best candidate.

The results found that only 32% of federal executives believed their agency to have a “strategic recruitment plan” that was aligned to its workforce needs.

“Our government is struggling to meet many of the major challenges we face today, in part because we have neglected to invest in and strengthen this critical institution for decades,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, via a statement.

“The new survey highlights several key issues, including the need for improve the way the government attracts, hires and retains skilled employees,” Stier added. “To meet America’s current and future needs, the White House, Congress and agency leaders need a comprehensive plan to rebuild our government, which is why we are launching the Roadmap for Renewing Our Federal Government.”

The survey was a collaborative effort by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, along with the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University and Georgetown University.

Actions for the Next Administration

While the Partnership For Public Service survey was conducted and prepared before the 2020 Presidential Election results were known, it called for several early actions for the next administration. These included:

  • Select and promote capable leaders. Political appointees should be better prepared to lead in the public sector, career executives need greater opportunities for growth and development, and all must recognize their responsibilities as stewards of the public trust.
  • Revamp the hiring process: The hiring and recruiting process should be modernized along with a renewed call to public service designed to bring skilled talent into the government.
  • Promote innovation and upgrade technology: The White House and agency leaders should encourage and reward innovation, invest in modern technology and empower employees with a customer-service mindset.
  • Foster cross-agency and intergovernmental cooperation: Federal agencies need to do a better job of collaborating with each other, across the legislative and executive branches, between levels of government, and with the private and nonprofit sectors to more effectively solve problems and deliver services.
  • A More Competitive and Constructive Workplace

The Partnership For Public Service’s report was also in line with a September 2019 Congressional Testimony from Rachel Greszler, research fellow in economics, budget and entitlements at The Heritage Foundation.

“An effective government requires being able to attract and retain the best and brightest individuals to carry out its mission, including providing a constructive and flourishing workplace where individuals can grow and thrive,” Greszler said in her testimony before the Government Oversight Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

“Yet, significant barriers exist to an effective and accountable government today, taxpayer resources are often inefficiently allocated, and engrained policies and procedures inhibit flexibility and responsiveness,” she added.

Among the suggestions Greszler suggested was to make a more competitive compensation package, improve accountability and merit, and innovative ways to meet federal workforce needs while creating new opportunities for federal workers.

Attracting Talent

As ClearanceJobs previously reported, there are still a multitude of reasons why the federal government struggles to attract top talent.

This includes an antiquated hiring process, which can take 98 days on average, double that of the private sector; a lack of hiring strategy, which fails to assess openings based on need; ineffective recruiting methods; a poor talent selection progress; and too often a “home grown” pipeline.

Low Retention Rates

It is simply finding the best individuals, it is retaining those employees and that has become as serious a problem. There have also multiple reasons for why the federal government has had issues with retention rates. According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, there have been several factors that need to be addressed as well.

These included creating a climate that represents excellent work culture; increasing compensation where it is possible; and improving connectedness between federal agencies.

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at