IT Crucial as Feds Respond to 'Perfect Storm' Labor Squeeze

IT Crucial as Feds Respond to 'Perfect Storm' Labor Squeeze

Government agency leaders urged to embrace digital services and mobile work strategies to improve citizen services amid hiring freeze.

Federal agencies need to embrace new technologies and more flexible workplace arrangements as they seek to improve service delivery while dealing with a harsh budget climate that has put severe limits on their ability to hire new workers, government officials said this week.

"We've faced this perfect storm where the workload is going up dramatically and our workforce is coming down dramatically in number," Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner of human resources at the Social Security Administration, said in panel discussion at a government IT conference.

At the SSA, Wells says the agency's workforce has shrunk from a high of about 84,000 workers several years ago to a current level of a little more than 60,000. This at a time when the population is aging; approximately 10,000 Americans reach retirement age each day, so the demand for Social Security services has been steadily increasing.

In response, Wells says his agency has leaned on an array of Web-based and mobile technologies, both to extend digital services to citizens through the online platform and to more efficiently allocate scarce human resources. He points to SSA's My Social Security site, an online portal where people can research benefits, track their earnings and find other information about the program.

"We're ... trying to meet people's needs without them having to come into our offices," Well says. "We're now pushing more of that work or making it more available online, and that's creating some culture change, as you might imagine, within the organization."

On the workforce side, SSA has been working through the GovConnect program, an initiative the administration launched in March "to create a culture of excellence based on collaboration and teamwork that responds to mission demands without being unnecessarily limited by organizational silos." That effort is staked on better inter-agency coordination and the adoption of new mobile technologies and policies to enable workers to do their jobs remotely.

[ Related: ATF CIO Pushes for a More Mobile Government ]

"Employees are going to have the ability to take their talents wherever we need them in the organization," Well says. "That's going to tremendously change the way in which our workforce sees itself making a contribution."

Wells notes that the SSA, while unique in the services it provides and in the community footprint it maintains through its branch offices, is hardly alone among government organizations in trying to lean on technology to do, in effect, more with less. "From an IT perspective, I think we're going through much the same culture change as the other federal agencies," he says.

Embracing Government Mobility an Exercise in Change Management

The government culture change that Wells and others describe comes under the broad umbrella of change management, which can be particularly challenging in an environment like the federal government with an established some would say ossified way of doing business.

But managing that process within the agency is part of the new reality of government, says Mika Cross, a fellow at the President's Management Council within the Office of Personnel Management.

"You're looking at ways that telework can drive operational efficiencies, reduce costs, change the way that the workspace looks and how organizations are leveraging leased office space and how they design their organizations to broaden collaboration and increase engagement that way," Cross says.

[ Also: Security, Budgets Slow Mobility in Government ]

Cross credits numerous agencies with adopting more flexible workplace policies, to facilitate telework and other tech-driven initiatives, and to accommodate a diverse workforce that's more welcoming to veterans, people with disabilities and working families.

"They're getting really aggressive about changing the way we work, how we work, when we work," Cross says. "And this administration has been really focused on increasing workplace flexibility for working families as a tenet of mission efficacy overall."

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