The Federal Government Could Benefit from a Digital Academy According to GAO

Published: December 02, 2021

Federal Market AnalysisGAOInformation TechnologyIT Workforce

A recent GAO study concluded that the federal government could benefit from establishing a digital service academy to provide a pipeline of needed IT expertise and talent for federal agencies.

First proposed by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee asked GAO to investigate the need for an academy to supply critical IT and digital expertise to agencies due to current hiring, managing, and retention challenges with digital staffing.

GAO convened a roundtable of federal chief technology officers, chief data officers, chief information officers, academics, and other experts on Oct. 13, 2021, to discuss agencies’ needs for digital services staff, key characteristics of a digital service academy, and concepts to ensure federal agencies could absorb graduates of a digital service academy.

The roundtable identified the following examples of digital services skills, expertise, and disciplines desired:

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Application development
  • Cybersecurity and incidence response
  • User-centric design and digital twins
  • Data engineering and data science
  • Data visualization and communication
  • Robotics process automation
  • Cloud services and infrastructure modernization

GAO found agencies’ needs for digital expertise and staffing vary in roles and urgency. Some agencies have an urgent need for digital staffing now, while others have more long-term needs. The types of work and roles that exist for digital experts include updating legacy systems, applying advanced technologies, managing cybersecurity risks, and reimagining service delivery.

Federal agencies are currently meeting digital and IT needs through a variety of methods such as civil service hiring, use of contractors, use of the Personnel Act Mobility Program, and fellowships and internships.

Roundtable participants discussed the idea of creating a digital service academy to train future federal employees for digital roles. A digital service academy would operate similarly to military academies. The group identified several characteristics of a digital service academy concept. An academy would need to include a degree-granting institution, a curriculum designed to meet agency needs, students receiving specialized training and experience, and graduates performing a term of federal digital service. In order to move forward with a service academy concept, a number of questions would need to be addressed such as class composition, degree level, class size, and skills to be taught.

GAO uncovered several considerations related to agencies’ abilities to absorb and employee graduates of a digital service academy:

  • Full-time equivalent (FTE) availability – Agencies would require additional FTE allocations from OMB in order to offer employment to academy graduates.
  • Modernizing technological infrastructure – Currently, a lack of modern technology infrastructure limits the ability of agencies to leverage the skills of digital services staff.
  • Establishing career pathways – Clear career paths need establishing for digital and IT staff.
  • Addressing compensation concerns – Currently, federal salary and compensation are not competitive with private industry.
  • Streamlining the federal hiring process – The federal hiring process must be streamlined and shortened in order to accommodate graduates.
  • Existing laws and regulations - Additional training for digital services staff is necessary to abide by federal regulations such as FISMA and federal governance requirements.

GAO concluded that the federal government could benefit from a digital services academy, but hurdles remain in order to make such an initiative effective.  Meanwhile, existing talent gaps provide opportunities for contractors to supply needed digital and IT expertise.