Opening Up Jobs for Those Without a College Degree

To the Editor:

I may be an “old school” H.R. professional, but I worry about my colleagues’ mad rush to so-called skill-based hiring. To be sure, many (perhaps most) jobs do not necessarily require a college degree per se, but they do require individuals who can think analytically and critically, comprehend and synthesize concepts and ideas, and above all, communicate all those things to others in a way that’s understandable.

It used to be that one acquired these competencies in college (any college!!), and while they can surely be acquired elsewhere, they are no less needed today than they were in the past. I fear that in our rush to embrace a seemingly more egalitarian approach to hiring, we may be “dumbing down” what we demand of new employees. But that’s just me, and as I said, I’m naïvely old school.

Ron Sanders
Sarasota, Fla.
The writer is a former H.R. director for several federal agencies.

Boiling the frog: How civil servants are being politicized before our eyes

Despite herculean efforts by its Democratic sponsors, a statutory ban on the Trump administration’s controversial Schedule F failed in the last session of Congress, and the chances of it passing in the next two years are now less than zero. As many readers know, Schedule F would have made political loyalty to a particular elected official (in this instance, former President Donald Trump) the litmus test for the retention of thousands of career civil servants in the federal government’s Executive Branch. That’s scary, especially to me, and I resigned from a Trump appointment in protest over it shortly after it was issued.

Unfortunately, the relative arcana of Schedule F may not be particularly familiar to those of you outside the D.C. beltway, given that you are far more immediately concerned with local issues. That’s as should be, but one need only look at the recent removal of Sarasota, Florida’s school superintendent to realize that as bad as Schedule F may have been to the federal bureaucracy, its impetus — ostensibly to make civil servants “more accountable” to their elected bosses — is growing in momentum at virtually every level of government.

Thus, if it hasn’t already, it may soon be coming to a theater near you. And at the risk of mixing too many metaphors, like another old saw about boiling a frog, we’re liable to turn around one day and realize that we’ve been cooked.

Some background on the ‘more accountability’ movement

First, a bit of background is in order. At the risk of retelling history, Schedule F was established by then-President Trump via executive order in October 2020, and while estimates of its true impact vary, it would likely have removed most civil service protections from several thousand federal employees (that is, those in still-undefined policy support positions), under the guise of making them more accountable to the whims of their commander in chief, and the implicit threat to a professional — that is, politically neutral — civil service was obvious.

And as noted above, while the executive order that established Schedule F was immediately rescinded by President Joe Biden shortly after he took office in January 2021, legislative efforts in the Congress to permanently preclude its progeny have failed.

To be sure, that immediate failure is unfortunate, but it also foreshadows a resurrection of proposals like the oxymoronically named Public Service Reform Act (PSRA), introduced this past year by a group of Freedom Caucus legislators — including a couple who figured prominently in the election of our new Speaker of the House — which would make all federal civil servants employable “at will” and subject to removal for just about any (or no!) cause.

Unfortunately, this is only the latest chapter in what has been an erosion of civil service protections at all levels of government, all motivated by the seemingly laudable (and conceptually legitimate) goal of making entrenched, unresponsive, bureaucratic civil servants more accountable to those elected to lead them. Why would anyone argue with that?

A cautionary tale of politicized administration

Here’s why. Just look at the case of Sarasota’s local school superintendent — a politically neutral public administrator if there ever was one — who was recently forced to leave office for what were purely political reasons: in this case, the enforcement of mask mandates sanctioned by the current school board’s duly elected predecessors to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. Indeed, that same predecessor board gave the school superintendent a “highly effective” rating on his 2022 performance evaluation.

But then came last November’s local elections. That same nonpartisan-by-law board “flipped” and became far more conservative. And among its very first actions, a majority of its members voted to remove the superintendent. They did this because he had enforced policies they didn’t like, even though those policies were supported and sanctioned by their duly elected predecessors. Instead, the new board just voted to be rid of him.

But isn’t this all about accountability, you ask? Shouldn’t that superintendent be accountable to the new board when it comes to mask mandates, or any other policy for that matter? After all, elected officials set the policy, and administrators carry it out. And when an administrator refuses to do so, or (perhaps more subtly) slow-rolls its execution to suit his or her own agenda, they should be removed.

But when a civil servant faithfully carries out policies supported and sanctioned by an elected body, only to have that same body, subsequently reconstituted by another election, undo those policies, what happens then? Unfortunately, Sarasota’s school board didn’t wait to find out. They just voted to fire the school system’s senior-most civil servant for basically doing his job. That’s not a good thing for Sarasota, but like a boiling frog, the real impact may not be as immediately apparent.

Consequences, intended and otherwise

In that regard, I worry less about the nuances of local school board politics and more about the problematic message such increasingly common incidents like this send to the labor market. I am a human resources professional by trade, with over five decades spent trying to recruit and retain civil servants that are both high-performing and accountable — in controversial organizations like the IRS, the CIA, the National Security Agency and the FBI — and my question is, who in their right mind is going to apply for Sarasota’s now-vacant school superintendent position? Or any other senior civil service job, for that matter?

This is especially problematic in the throes of a “sellers’” labor market, when applicants have so many choices. And that question doesn’t just apply to top jobs; they may be the ones most immediately exposed to partisan politics, but one need only look at the hundreds of unfilled teacher positions in school systems like Sarasota’s to ask how many prospective job candidates are looking elsewhere because they don’t want to worry about political agendas and proxy patronage. They just want to teach and will vote to do so with their feet.

Truth in advertising: I live in Sarasota and pay lots of taxes to the city, and before this happened, I paid little attention to school board matters. After all, this was a nonpartisan body and since my kids are no longer students, it really didn’t matter to me. But it turns out that it does.

As many of you know, this is not an isolated case, an example of a rogue school board seeking partisan revenge. Rather, the politicization of just about every aspect of public service — from policy to permitting and even policing — is in danger of becoming our new normal.

And that’s the problem. These days, the line between politics and administration is about as gray as it can be — at just about every level of government — and the notion of appointing and retaining politically neutral professionals to run those governments has pretty much been legislated out of existence in many jurisdictions. Schedule F and the PSRA would officially do the same at the federal level, but they are by no means novel.

A simple solution: Educating citizens

But if one accepts that this is a problem, is there anything that can be done about it? One option would be to reestablish a modern version of the old Civil Service Leagues, created in the late 1800s at a time when rampant political patronage began to seriously erode government’s ability to administer increasingly complex policies and programs. Those Leagues advocated a neutrally competent, professional civil service, hired strictly on merit (vs. patronage or nepotism) and protected by due process from the excesses and evils of the old spoils system.

They were successful, ultimately leading to the passage of the 1883 Pendleton Act at the federal level, along with a host of similar “clone” laws at the state and local level, all intended to create civil services that were based on what one knew vs. who one knew, and these emancipated civil servants from the chaos of politics and patronage. Thus, those laws concluded that too much accountability patronage was not a good thing, and they did this by educating the electorate about the problem.

That is not to say the civil servants should not be held accountable, and many (including myself) would argue that current federal protections have gone too far in that regard. But that doesn’t mean that we should eliminate those protections altogether. As we learned in the IRS in 1998 and the intelligence community after Sept. 11, 2001, the nation needs civil servants who will faithfully execute the laws that legislators pass — and the courage to speak truth to power about them — without fearing for their jobs. That means that they need to be protected.

However, poor performers should not be tolerated in government workplaces, or protected even indirectly. We just need to find the right balance, but while this isn’t the place for those details, suffice it to say that it wouldn’t take a lot of funding — most likely from the modern-day equivalent of those who funded the Civil Service Leagues — to educate our fellow citizens on the need for a civil service that is nonpartisan, politically neutral and protected on one hand, but that is also accountable for high performance on the other.

At least we can hope for the same result. But first we all need to agree that it’s a challenge worth taking on; not just those civil service nerds like me that worry about stuff like this, but all of us! Until then, the ugly excesses of politics will prevail.

Ron Sanders was recently elected as a member of the American Society for Public Administration National’s Council and will assume that post in March. Sanders is also a 2006 Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration; IRS’ first chief human resources officer; associate director of OPM; chief human capital officer for the intelligence community; and later, chairman of the Federal Salary Council. Concurrently, he headed the University of South Florida’s School of Public Affairs and later, served as staff director for its Florida Center for Cybersecurity.

Giving IRS more personnel flexibilities

The IRS Will Need These 4 Things to Succeed After the Midterms

Commissioner-designate Danny Werfel has an opportunity to transform the tax agency, if given the right tools.

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I was relieved and gratified to see that President Biden has officially nominated my colleague Danny Werfel to become the next Internal Revenue Service commissioner. Even though Werfel has been the acting IRS leader before, the various challenges facing him now—should he be confirmed—are daunting and the political fallout of the midterm elections may serve to further compound that difficulty.

Still, I believe Werfel’s confirmation would offer an opportunity for him to demonstrate to reasonable, centrist legislators in both parties and chambers of Congress—those who will acknowledge that the country needs a viable tax collection agency—that he can transform the IRS without becoming partisan about it. That starts with sustaining the funding provided by the Inflation Reduction Act. However, it takes more than money: the IRS needs four other things right now if the hope of overcoming challenges is ever to become a reality.

Help Building a New Leadership Team

In my view, Commissioner-designate Werfel’s first priority should be to put together an executive leadership team composed of change agents from both inside and outside the agency. This is a page right out of the transformation book, and it’s a book that former IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti helped write when we were at IRS. It is also exactly the role Congress had in mind when they made the commissioner’s position a five-year term appointment.

But it’s also going to take help from the Office of Personnel Management. If Werfel is to be successful in attracting private sector talent to fill technical and leadership positions, he’ll need authority to offer them higher salaries, just like some federal agencies can do now. That’s why Congress gave IRS streamlined critical pay authority back in 1998, and it was the impetus for an abortive effort to do so again in the Inflation Reduction Act (an effort I’ll confess to helping). It’s also why the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments, the National Institutes of Health, financial oversight agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission, and others have all sought and received independent authority to pay more than Executive Level II (the current executive salary cap) for critical leadership and technical positions.

So, the IRS must now rely on OPM for help. The good news? Congress gave OPM authority to approve higher salaries for some 800 “critical pay” positions since 1990, potentially paying up to the level of the vice president’s salary for talent. The bad news is that OPM officials have approved only a handful of those positions, and they’ve done so on a case-by-case basis. That just isn’t going to work, and I would implore OPM to provide that authority on a broad, “trust but verify” basis. In other words, give IRS delegated critical pay authority for some specified number of positions—the Inflation Reduction Act would have authorized as many as 500—with whatever reasonable standards and procedural strings OPM wants to impose to avoid abuse, but then turn IRS loose to recruit and hire to that number.

Give the IRS’ Union a Seat at the Table

In addition to a new leadership team, there’s the need for a close, working partnership with the organization that represents IRS employees (among thousands of other federal civil servants)—the National Treasury Employees Union. I believe that NTEU needs to be intimately involved in this effort from its very beginning, helping IRS exercise the entire panoply of its personnel flexibilities—including those I’ve recommended here—as a full partner, with shared responsibility for its success.

Indeed, I would put NTEU on the agency’s executive leadership team, just as they were back in 1998. And this isn’t just a “let’s make nice for the cameras” expediency. Their active participation can bring huge credibility, not to mention great ideas and insights, from helping to design many of these new jobs—just as they did when the IRS’s Customer Service career field was first created—to identifying internal top notch “first consideration” candidates for retraining, reassignment or reemployment. The good news is that relatively speaking, IRS and NTEU have a model relationship (they’ve even won awards for it), so this isn’t a big step. But NTEU needs to be at the table, perio

Give IRS More Personnel Flexibilities

In addition to technical experts and senior leaders, the IRS will need thousands of front-line employees, but under today’s civil service system, getting them recruited, evaluated and hired is not easy. However, here again, OPM already has the authority to help IRS close the tax gap by giving it two additional personnel flexibilities, if it can just overcome its historic aversion to risk.

One of those is the ability to make expedited—potentially even on-the-spot—hires. In other words, direct hire authority. The good news is that according to my trusted sources, OPM and IRS are actively working on giving the agency direct hire authority, based solely on the critical need for such authority under the law. Note that Congress already gave IRS similar authority directly in its fiscal 2022 appropriations act, albeit on a narrow, time-limited basis. While the agency demonstrated its ability to exercise that authority effectively, that was a short-term Band-Aid, something we tried (and failed) to expand in the Inflation Reduction Act. But hopefully, OPM will soon give IRS broader direct hire authority, and it couldn’t come fast enough.

However, in addition to direct hire authority and expedited, “trust but verify” critical pay authority, OPM should also give the agency a blanket waiver to the annuity offset that re-employed IRS (and other federal) retirees would have to suffer if they’re hired back as agency employees. At present, the law requires them to give up all or part of their pensions—in an amount equal to their new government salary, no less—for the “privilege” of returning to IRS, and their refusal to do so is understandable. But the net result is that they often go to work for contractors, who then “rent” their services back to the government, often at a much higher hourly rate.

Note that while the IRS could offer its employees phased retirement (which was authorized by Congress in 2014 and comes with a limited annuity offset waiver), it has OPM oversight and so many strings attached that it’s rarely been used by agencies. Instead, like critical pay authority, a number of agencies—most notably the Defense Department, the FBI and the CIA—have gone to Congress to get their own independent “dual comp waiver” authority. OPM can grant that waiver authority today if an agency can demonstrate “unusual circumstances” (IRS even has a regulation permitting this, but with all kinds of restrictions). Bottom line: This is another fix that could be granted now, with whatever reasonable standards and audits OPM wants to impose. But this would go far toward solving the IRS’s impending staffing shortage, ironically brought on by its large-and-growing retirement-eligible workforce.

Give IRS Top Cover and Reasonable Oversight

In my view, the personnel flexibilities described above are essential to IRS’s success. But to obtain them, along with the funding that will fuel them, IRS could also use unequivocal top cover from the Biden administration, perhaps via a presidential memorandum that tells OPM, the Office of Management and Budget, and the General Services Administration to push the edge of the legal envelope when it comes to granting IRS the flexibilities many of us have outlined. And by shifting the burden of that push to the White House, such a memorandum could also alleviate any risk-aversion OPM and its peer-agencies may have.

These risks can also be mitigated by strong execution oversight from the White House, or better yet, the Treasury Department. Treasury played such an intermediary role in the IRS’s 1998 transformation, and perhaps supplemented by a reinvigorated IRS Oversight Board, it can serve as an honest broker here too, providing balanced oversight and post hoc audits to ensure that IRS is using administrative flexibilities responsibly, with the threat of rescinding those authorities if it doesn’t. And of course, Congress can and should provide its traditional oversight as well, hopefully led by those thoughtful lawmakers in both political parties who recognize the need for a fully funded, service-oriented IRS.

To me, these four things are all necessary if the IRS is to realize the promise of the Inflation Reduction Act. But while they are all necessary, they are not sufficient. The IRS—its leaders and managers, its union and the employees it represents, and those in the administration and on Capitol Hill who care—all need to step up to challenge. Knowing them as I do, I’m confident that they can. We just need to give them the right tools.

Ron Sanders is the former director of the University of South Florida’s School of Public Affairs and later, its Florida Center for Cybersecurity. He is also a 2006 Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. He was IRS’s first chief human resources officer, before becoming associate director of OPM, chief human capital officer for the U.S. Intelligence Community, and later, chair of the Federal Salary Council.

Using salary history in Federal jobs

Calls to ban use of salary history reveal deeper issues in federal pay system

A group of Justice Department employees urged the Office of Personnel Management to go a step further in its forthcoming regulations on the use of salary history in the federal hiring and pay-setting processes.

The DOJ Gender Equality Network (DOJ GEN) said OPM should ban agencies from not only the solicitation of, but also any reliance on, job applicants’ past salaries when setting rates of current or future pay.

“If a job applicant or new hire can provide an agency with their past salary as leverage during salary negotiations, and an agency can use it to set pay, then a ban on solicitation will have no effect,” DOJ GEN President Stacey Young said in an email to Federal News Network. “Stopping at solicitation allows job applicants and new hires to get around the ban, and savvy new hires coming from highly paid jobs will take advantage of that.”

The use of salary history perpetuates the gender and racial pay gaps in the federal workforce, according to DOJ GEN, since pay gaps disproportionately affect women and people of color. Although the federal gender and racial pay gaps are smaller than those in the private sector, the employee advocacy group pointed to data from OPM that showed women make 5.9% less than their male colleagues in the federal workforce.

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Recruiting and retaining cyber talent

There’s still time to retool the Cyber Talent Management System at DHS to create a cadre of cyber specialists to fill key roles at federal civilian agencies.

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The federal government has a cyber talent deficit. With some exceptions (the National Security Agency and FBI come to mind), federal agencies have a difficult time recruiting and keeping cyber talent, especially in today’s hyper-competitive labor market. 

This workforce gap, to borrow a phrase from the cybersecurity world, is a kind of advanced persistent threat (APT). So I read with interest a recent announcement from the Office of Personnel Management that a strategy was coming to address the problem. 

But OPM isn’t going to solve that problem by using today’s outmoded civil service rules to level the cybersecurity playing field among civilian federal agencies. No amount of leveling, ostensibly to avoid internecine internal competition, will fix that–especially when another way to close that seemingly intractable talent gap has existed for well over a decade. 

DHS’s Cyber Talent Management System is an alternative

OPM Director Kiran Ahuja has pointed a finger at the Cyber Talent Management System at the Department of Homeland Security, which offers enhanced pay and speedy recruitment, as a factor in stoking competition among agencies for top talent. 

But that is precisely what Congress intended when it gave DHS authority to create CTMS back in 2014, and I believe that legislators had even bigger things in mind–like having that agency’s cybersecurity organization actually oversee all non-DOD networks, just like the Defense Information Systems Agency and U.S. CYBERCOM do for the Defense Department. And in so doing, Congress provided a broad range of personnel flexibilities that OPM and DHS could take advantage of right now, without betting on existing rules and/or legislative action. 

I say that with trepidation because DHS’s record is less than stellar in this area. It took them over seven years to finally publish CTMS regulations, much of that the result of internal bureaucratic wrangling. And after all that, the result—with initial coverage just in the double digits—is decidedly modest. 

However, the ‘good news’ here (he says with his tongue firmly planted in cheek) is that CTMS remains far more theory than reality, both in terms of reach and numbers, so there’s still time to leverage it to create a governmentwide cyber human capital system that actually achieves its original vision. 

In that regard, I was there at its inception, part of a small team of ‘formers’ from OPM and the intelligence community expert in cyber talent development, brought in to help DHS design CTMS. And from the beginning, we argued for an end-state that was bigger than that envisioned by DHS, with that department responsible for employing and deploying cyber workers across federal domestic agencies (that is, those not covered by DISA and CYBERCOM). CTMS would serve as a common set of rules, including ‘special’ salary ranges, that would have helped the federal government compete with the private sector.  

DOD created its comparable Cybersecurity Excepted Service in less than half that time it took DHS to get CTMS online and has already hired thousands under that system. Because of this under-the-radar success story, some would argue that we should just give the Defense Department responsibility for overall governmentwide cybersecurity. 

I might agree in concept, but that may be just too high a political mountain to climb. Besides, the flexibilities in CTMS were originally intended to not just level the playing field, but to take that playing field to a new level. Thus, while the final design of CTMS is suboptimal, it can be upgraded to provide the answer to the federal government’s cyber talent woes. 

If DHS used the full panoply of ‘excepted service’ flexibilities Congress gave it way back in 2014, it could have in place right now a cadre of cybersecurity experts ready to be deployed across the civilian enterprise to agencies large and small. And small agencies with big data responsibilities (like OPM or the Bureau of Indian Affairs) would not need to compete for cyber talent, something that they might find hard to do even with a level playing field when it comes to pay. 

Risks can be mitigated…it just takes leadership!

We already know that challenge and mission motivate individual cyber workers every bit as much as pay, perhaps more so. That’s one area where the federal government has potential competitive advantage, and DHS could leverage that advantage, much as the U.S. military does with CYBERCOM’s  own Cyber Mission Teams.

Would civilian federal agencies on the receiving end of this deployment bristle at having an ‘outsider’ from DHS come to their cyber defense? Maybe, but I would suggest that those same agencies are likely finding it difficult to hire cyber talent on their own now, and not just because they can’t pay as much. Even with special pay, those agencies can at best offer a limited internal career path, which almost guarantees that their cyber specialists will move on to more lucrative and challenging opportunities on their own. Accordingly, I believe that most non-DOD agencies will choose to take DHS talent and the ‘common defense’ it offers. 

To be sure, these changes are far-reaching, and they won’t be easy to implement. But having been in this business for too long, I would argue that the APT problem set is more than sufficient to justify them. This is simply the best available way to solve the Federal government’s long-brewing cybersecurity (and cyber talent) challenges. And on the plus side, they are all within current statutory authority, so it won’t take another act of Congress to make them happen. What it will take is bold, innovative leadership within the executive branch, something I know National Cyber Director Chris Inglis, DHS’s Jen Easterly, OPM’s Ahuja and  others can provide.

IRS needs more HR flexibility, capacity

IRS Has the Funding to Hire Tens of Thousands. Can It Actually Do So?

IRS hiring has been thrust into the spotlight, but augmenting the agency’s workforce is still far from guaranteed.

When Senate Democrats first unveiled their agreement to invest in climate change solutions and health care reforms while tweaking the tax code, the massive $80 billion funding surge for the Internal Revenue Service was coupled with special hiring and pay authorities to allow the agency to quickly onboard a slew of new workers. 

Due to arcane Senate procedures, however, that language was stripped from the bill before it passed and President Biden signed it into law. 

The change went largely unnoticed, but the analysts at the Congressional Budget Office found it could have a dramatic impact: they lowered their projection of the new revenue IRS would bring in over the next 10 years by $23 billion. The reason, CBO said, was the Inflation Reduction Act no longer containing personnel flexibilities “will cause the IRS to hire new personnel more slowly and could make hiring experienced candidates more difficult.” With IRS less able to hire quickly, to hire mid-career staff as planned and, potentially, to meet its hiring goals at all, the agency will collect less money. 

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Winning the war for cyber talent

The Great Power Competition Volume 3: Cyberspace: The Fifth Domain (2022)

1. How We Got Here: The Rise of Cyber Conflict from 1991 to 2021.- 2. The Great Cyber Talent Competition.- 3. Alternate Reality: The Use of Disinformation to Normalize Extremism.- 4. The Future of Cyber-Enabled Influence Operations: Emergent Technologies, Misinformation, and the Destruction of Democracy.- 5. Cybersecurity and Strategic Deterrence.- 6. When the Levee Breaks: A Global Trend of Cyber-Physical and Cyber-Operational Attacks against Critical Infrastructure and Future Implications on the Great Power Competition.- 7. Cyber Threats to Critical Infrastructure.- 8. Are China and Russia on the Cyber Offensive in Latin American and the Caribbean?.- 9. Russian and Chinese Cyber Involvement with Latin America.- 10. Cyber Leadership and the Era of the Great Power Competition.- 11. Global Alliances & Partnerships in the Modern Great Power Competition.- 12. Pacific Partners: Security Cooperation in the Great Power Competition.- 13. Countering Violent Extremism in Cyber Space: A New Frontier for the Great Power Cooperation.- 14. Thinking Globally, Acting Locally – Why a Targeted Approach to Russia, China, and the Proxy Cyber War is a Global Solution.- 15. Leveraging Talent to Dominate in Cyber: An Army Perspective.

Creating more cyber scholarships

One Simple Fix Could Help Close the Federal Cyber Talent Gap

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How to entice more students studying cybersecurity to work in government.

Many federal officials are worried about closing the government’s large and growing cybersecurity talent gap—as well they should be. The good news is that a simple legislative fix could open up many more opportunities for top cyber students to eventually join the ranks of the federal civil service. Just give every federal agency the same cybersecurity scholarship authority that the Defense Department has today and then get out of their way. 

It would require just a few changes to the wording of DOD’s authority, and there’s no better time to do it than now, as the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act makes its way through Congress.

Here’s what Title 10 of the U.S. Code says now: 

To encourage the recruitment and retention of Department of Defense personnel who have the computer and network security skills necessary to meet the cybersecurity requirements of the Department of Defense, the Secretary of Defense may carry out programs in accordance with this chapter to provide financial support for education in disciplines relevant to those requirements at institutions of higher education [including funding for] Scholarships for pursuit of programs of education in cybersecurity disciplines at institutions of higher education.

All Congress needs to do is copy and paste this provision from Title 10 to Title 5 of the U.S. Code, strike “Department of Defense” and “Secretary of Defense” in a few places and replace it with language such as “any agency in the U.S. government” and “agency head.” This would make the provision applicable to all agencies. Everything else could remain as is, with the exercise of the authority subject to each agency’s own separate appropriations, and all other provisions—such as eligibility criteria, scholarship amounts and payback periods—still in effect.

Why Another Program?

Knowledgeable readers might ask why we should create another cybersecurity scholarship program for non-DOD agencies when the National Science Foundation already has one. The NSF Scholarship for Service program has been around for a couple of decades. That program has been effective, more or less, and while it remains limited in terms of numbers, the motives of those in the NSF who administer the program are as laudable today as they were when it was conceived. So why another one, especially one that could compete with the NSF program?

The answer is it would provide an opportunity to change the approach to scholarships. Both the NSF and DOD programs have very similar scholarship eligibility requirements. For example, a scholarship winner in either program must be a U.S. citizen and eligible for a security clearance. More importantly, both the DOD and NSF programs include a post-scholarship commitment to serve in a position with a U.S. government agency. In the case of a DOD scholarship, the posting must be with one of the department’s many subcomponents; with NSF, any agency will do. However, therein lies the biggest difference—and biggest flaw—in the NSF program. 

Under NSF’s approach, federal hiring managers and personnel professionals aren’t involved in the selection of scholarship winners. Instead, the college or university—typically in the form of cybersecurity faculty members or committees—selects the scholarship winners. In many circumstances, those winners are not even introduced to the people or agencies that could end up hiring them until the students are in their final semester of school. 

Individual colleges can fund summer internships with a local federal agency or sponsor local professional development activities that will expose scholarship students to the federal government’s missions. But that’s not the same as having an agency involved in their selection up front, as is required by the DOD program. 

The NSF program is built by and for academics and their students. While that is exactly what one would expect from the NSF, it doesn’t take into account the real world of government’s cybersecurity missions, or more importantly, its hiring practices. This is especially true at a time when the federal government’s private sector competition can win any dollar-for-dollar contest for cyber talent. 

Start the Clock Early

Separating scholarship and hiring decisions is problematic, since many government agencies centrally hire cybersecurity professionals, especially at the entry level. Their recruiters are not likely to even meet with NSF scholarship students until they’re in the final stages of their academic program. The separation is compounded by further post-graduation delays in getting those same students a secret or higher security clearance with a federal agency.

So, it’s no wonder that many of those NSF scholarship winners struggle to get a federal cyber job. Or worse, get recruited by a private sector company willing to pay off their post-graduation service commitment. 

By starting the clock early, the DOD program also ensures that the scholarship student can complete one or more internships with the hiring agency, so the latter can get the measure of the student’s technical skills, work ethic and fit with the organization. And by providing an internship opportunity while a scholarship winner is still a student, DOD can sponsor that student for a Secret—or even higher—security clearance months in advance of graduation.

When I was chief human capital officer for the U.S. Intelligence Community, we convinced the DoD general counsel that similar scholarships—in that case, for students who’d been awarded funding to study a critical foreign language under the National Security Education Program—gave the department the authority to sponsor those scholarship students for security clearances while they were still students. This dramatically reduced the amount of post-graduation time those students spent awaiting a clearance. A similar principle would apply to cybersecurity scholarship winners.

All Congress needs to do to set this process in motion is amend the defense authorization bill to make DOD’s scholarship authority applicable to all federal agencies. This simple legislative fix could have a big impact on closing the government’s cyber talent gap. 

Ron Sanders is the former staff director at the Florida Center for Cybersecurity at the University of South Florida and a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. He also served as the chair of the Federal Salary Council, associate director of national intelligence for human capital, associate director for strategic human capital policy at the Office of Personnel Management, chief human resources officer at the Internal Revenue Service, director of civilian personnel at DoD, and a vice president and fellow at Booz Allen Hamilton.


Replenishing the IRS Workforce

Shrinking the Tax Gap Requires a Renewed IRS Workforce

Congress must give the agency statutory authority to develop and implement a new set of civil service rules if it is to hire and hold accountable employees with the necessary skills.

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The Biden administration estimates that uncollected taxes may amount to more than $7 trillion over the next 10 years. The White House proposes to reduce that gap by providing the IRS with long-term funding to invest in technology and rebuild the agency’s workforce. That workforce has been steadily declining for a quarter century, dropping about 20% in just the last decade alone, and the administration’s 10-year plan would add thousands of new IRS staff members, in addition to replacing those who will be retiring. This plan presents a major opportunity to build the IRS of the future, but it also presents a major challenge as well. 

Why? Because rebuilding the IRS workforce is not just a numbers game. Rather, in addition to replenishing its ranks, the agency must redefine the skills and expertise required of those employees, and then recruit, train, deploy and, above all, hold them accountable for successfully shrinking the tax gap. An integral part of doing that is providing first quality service to every taxpayer who interacts with the IRS 

That is a formidable challenge under any circumstances, but it is exacerbated by a current civil service system that is just not up to that task. If the administration and Congress want to improve service and reduce the tax gap, they must give the IRS statutory authority to develop and implement a new set of civil service rules that will enable it to do so.  

The IRS of the Future

The Biden administration’s proposal seeks to reduce the amount of tax revenue that is owed but not paid every year, known as the tax gap. One problem is taxpayers’ underreporting of income from sources other than wages and interest, but improving compliance will require new skills. In addition, the IRS has taken on new programs (like the child tax credit) and expanded missions (like the disbursement of COVID-19 stimulus checks), which require improving service to all taxpayers.

The IRS will need new skills and expertise, not just at the top—with senior leaders who understand and can leverage tools, and technologies to implement these new policies—but also in the rank and file. The agency needs specialists in applied information technology (such as AI and machine learning); data scientists and analysts; accounting and tax professionals with expertise in specialized areas such as partnership accounting; systems architects; and cyber security experts. 

To be successful, the IRS requires a workforce that is not only numerically larger but also fundamentally transformed from a skills standpoint.

Attracting Highly Qualified People 

We are confident that given the right tools and the right leadership, the IRS can attract and retain more than enough highly qualified people at all levels to lead the agency to the future we envision. Part of the attraction for new hires should be the opportunity to play a role in achieving a vital national priority: transforming one of the federal government’s most important institutions.  

But appealing to that mission alone won’t be enough to offset the basic dynamics of the labor market or the limitations of the current civil service system. Thus, while the IRS may not have to pay its future employees top dollar to attract and keep them, it does have to provide them compensation that is comparable to what they could earn in the private sector. And it certainly cannot ask its operational units to wait for months to bring them on board, or to wait years to decide whether they can do the job. These are all limitations of the current civil service system, and if the IRS is going to be able to do all that is expected of it, those limitations must be overcome. 

Give IRS a 21st Century HR System

The rules and regulations that comprise the current civil service system are not up to the task at hand, especially with respect to hiring, compensation, and accountability. Core elements of that system are almost 75 years old, and no part of it has been around for less than two decades. It is unrealistic to expect the IRS to rely on that system to transform itself.

The recent report by IRS’s Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins is especially instructive. The Taxpayer Advocate points out that the agency stands to lose thousands of skilled employees over the next several years, losses that are not only driven by normal attrition (retirements and resignations), but also by the frustration employees feel in working for an agency that has seen its mission expand while staffing contracts. But it is not enough to just replace the personnel losses—IRS needs to hire for skills it doesn’t currently possess. As the TA also notes, IRS takes over 120 days to fill a job; its HR operation is also unlikely to be up to the task of refilling its ranks any time soon. 

We agree with Collins that the IRS needs to dramatically transform its HR processes if it is to successfully replenish its ranks. The good news here is that there are many ways to do that, especially with the right statutory tools and state-of-the-art technology. But none of that can happen under the stringent limitations of the present civil service system, which is not built for speed, pay comparability, or accountability. 

For example, we know that salary rates under the current General Schedule significantly lag the private sector for many job categories, not only as a general matter, but specifically when it comes to jobs that require the advanced technological and analytical skills the IRS needs. The IRS can selectively use direct hiring authority, a tool that lets agencies make on-the-spot offers of employment. But to approve it, OPM requires an agency to make specific determinations that it cannot attract sufficient numbers of even basically qualified job candidates to fill its vacancies (our emphasis). It is like saying you don’t want the best people you can attract, just anyone with some basic skills. That will not work for the IRS in today’s economy. As Commissioner Rettig recently testified, the IRS is often “outgunned” when dealing with sophisticated taxpayers and their representatives. 

Without more personnel flexibilities than the current system has to offer, the IRS will not be able to attract, hire, and retain the highly qualified people it needs. 

Follow the Lead of Other Agencies 

The IRS was the beneficiary of statutory personnel flexibility in the late 1990’s, the last time the agency underwent a major transformation. The provisions were included in the historic 1998 IRS Restructuring and Reform Act. We think it is time to take similarly bold steps. 

The good news is there’s a model for this: Other agencies have been down this same path, and under circumstances similar to those facing the IRS today. For example, after the financial crisis of 2008-2009, Congress, via the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act (FIRREA), gave federal agencies responsible for regulating the nation’s banking and financial systems—the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Board, and the National Credit Union Administration, among others—statutory authority to create their own “excepted” civil service systems. 

Most importantly, those agencies received the authority to hire more quickly, set pay over and above General Schedule salary rates, bring in retirees without penalty and hold underperformers more accountable—all so that they could better compete for, recruit, and retain top-notch talent. And in the case of FIRREA agencies, that talent included sophisticated accountants, financial experts, attorneys, data scientists, technologists, and economists required to regulate Wall Street. These are exactly the kinds of high demand/high-tech employees the IRS will require.

We advocate providing the IRS the same statutory personnel flexibilities afforded the financial regulators. And we note that in the case of the FIRREA agencies, those flexibilities have the added benefit of being successfully exercised in collaboration with organized labor; indeed, the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents IRS employees, also represents employees at the FIRREA agencies, and it has negotiated collective bargaining agreements with the agencies that effectively implement those flexibilities.

Would the IRS be able to take advantage of these flexibilities? 

On this point, we are more optimistic than the IRS Taxpayer Advocate, who has expressed concerns. Our optimism is grounded in two reasons: 

First, with the right set of flexibilities, there is ample precedent for a successful hiring surge that would replenish an agency’s ranks with new, more highly skilled employees. A good example is the U.S. Intelligence Community after the 9/11 attacks. Before the attacks, the IC had been strangled by incremental, non-programmatic budget cuts and hiring freezes that had severely reduced its ranks by thousands of intelligence officers and analysts. Following the attacks, the IC rapidly surged to meet the threat, hiring thousands of new employees with critical language, analytical, and operational skills, mostly using the very “excepted” personnel rules we advocate. And during the time that it took to develop those new hires, it was able to bring back thousands of former employees—retirees who knew the work but who had moved on—without requiring them to sacrifice part of their well-earned annuities, yet another flexibility made difficult under current civil service rules.   

So, given the right tools, how can the IRS do it? By working with OPM and its sister FIRREA agencies to leverage interagency “tiger teams” of HR experts, augmented by re-employed annuitants and contractors, dramatically re-engineered work processes, and state-of-the-art HR technologies to implement the surge. It will take time. If the administration and the Congress take a similar approach for the IRS, they should be prepared for that. But it can be done without sacrificing the quality demanded by the IRS mission. 

Accountability and Oversight 

Some critics may argue that the FIRREA agencies have been given too much flexibility, without concomitant oversight. We believe this concern should be addressed and there is precedent for doing so here as well. 

For example, several years ago, Congress gave the Homeland Security and Defense departments FIRREA-like legislative authority to establish “excepted” personnel systems that would enable them to better recruit, develop, pay, and retain their civilian cybersecurity cadres. But those flexibilities were tempered by the additional statutory requirement that Defense and DHS seek and receive OPM approval for internal regulations that would implement them. That is something OPM has done in several other instances as well, most notably with elements of the Intelligence Community and its multi-agency set of “excepted” personnel authorities. It made sense then, and we think it makes sense now. 

If the Federal government is to improve service and reduce the tax gap, it will require an IRS that has state-of-the-art information technology. But while that technology is important, replenishing the workforce is equally critical, in large part because that technology has to be acquired, implemented, and effectively leveraged by capable IRS civil servants.

It is clear that after years of hiring freezes, the IRS workforce, through no fault of its own, suffers a deficit. Replenishing those ranks—with the flexibilities that can only come with a new, modern personnel system—must become a priority.

Charles Rossotti was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1998 to a five-year term as IRS Commissioner; he is currently with the Carlyle Group and serves on a number of corporate boards. Ron Sanders, now staff director at the University of South Florida’s Florida Center for Cybersecurity, was Commissioner Rossotti’s Chief HR Officer from 1998-2002 before becoming associate director of OPM and later chairing the Federal Salary Council

Drug use and security clearances

Budding Spies Might Not Get Weeded Out for Past Drug Use

Activists say this would be a practical step to help ensure all the best candidates are getting considered for intelligence jobs.

Intelligence agencies would be allowed to hire job candidates who have used marijuana in the past, under a legislative provision being considered in the Senate. 

On Wednesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee unanimously approved this provision as part of the 2023 Intelligence Authorization Act. The text of the legislation is not public yet. 

“I applaud the committee for including my provisions, in particular an amendment ensuring that past cannabis use will not disqualify intelligence community applicants from serving their country,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in a statement on Thursday. “It’s a common-sense change to ensure the [intelligence community] can recruit the most capable people possible.”

Ronald Sanders, who previously served as chief human capital officer for the intelligence community and retired in 2010 after 37 years of federal service, said “there are talented people – you want them to work for the federal government and you don’t want past transgressions to get in the way of that. The key word here is ‘past.’”

Sanders — who is now staff director for the Florida Center for Cybersecurity at the University of South Florida — said he believes past usage of marijuana should not be a disqualifier to work in the intelligence community. The new policy could be accompanied with drug tests and continuous monitoring to rule out current use, he said. 

“There should be an education campaign that tells students if they expect to get a security clearance they better stop now,” Sanders said. He noted some students and teachers he’s met with “don’t have a clue” about what’s involved with getting hired to sensitive, federal government posts. 

Chris Lindsey, director of government relations at Marijuana Policy Project, said this is a “pragmatic solution for government agencies that increasingly find that federal prohibition policy places them out of step with younger talent.”

Wyden sees that the intelligence agencies “need the best options available when they are looking for talent and sidelining capable people because of unpopular choices in the past isn’t sensible,” Lindsey continued. “We hope other agencies can support similar measures.”

Morgan Fox, political director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the measure “is definitely a step in the right direction.”

Over the last few years there’s been a big push to “adjust those policies for federal employees that live in states where cannabis is legal, despite the fact that it is still illegal at the federal level.” For national security roles, “there is absolutely no reason to deny people security clearances typically because they had cannabis at some point and that’s even more true now that it’s legal in a growing number of states.” 

The intelligence agencies and federal government overall are “really robbing themself of a lot of talent,” he added. 

“This is part of a much larger conversation” that is happening across industries, Fox pointed out. 

In recent years there has been some movement by agencies (such as the CIA and FBI) to relax their stance and policies on marijuana use. Then-acting Office of Personnel Management Director Kathleen McGettigan said in guidance in February 2021 that past marijuana use should not automatically disqualify individuals for federal jobs. 

In December, Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, issued an unclassified memo to agency heads, obtained by Government Executive, saying “Prior recreational marijuana use by an individual may be relevant to adjudications [to have access to classified information or eligibility to have a sensitive position], but not determinative.” 

According to Sanders, it is more important to have a law on this policy as opposed to a memo because “it is administratively easier to have it in law than to try to convince a DNI successor that they should continue the practice.” 

The provision is several steps away from becoming law. The full Senate still must pass the overall intelligence bill. Then the House would need to pass a version that also included the changes in policy on past marijuana use, and the president would need to sign it.   

Adam Mazmanian, executive editor of FCW, contributed to this report.