US government needs to compete for tech talent, says GSA chief

By on 14/10/2021 | Updated on 14/10/2021
Robin Carnahan: "To be able to deliver anything, we have to have the tech talent in the room at the beginning of the discussion, not bolted on at the end.” Photo courtesy GSA.

The US government is “embarrassingly out of sync” with private sector salaries but could compete for tech talent by offering long-term telework opportunities and making it easier to navigate the “cumbersome” application process, the new General Services Administration (GSA) chief has said.  

In an interview with Wired, Robin Carnahan also said investment from the Technology Modernisation Fund, boosted by an additional US$1bn this year, would be spent on developing more shared services that citizens could access through a single account.

Carnahan has led the GSA, which manages and supports the basic functioning of federal agencies, since June. She is the former secretary of state for Missouri and spent four years at 18F, a tech group within government focused on building user-centric digital services.

Attracting tech talent is a priority for the Biden administration, she said. “Because it’s super clear that bad delivery sinks good policy. To be able to deliver anything, we have to have the tech talent in the room at the beginning of the discussion, not bolted on at the end.”

She pointed to the US government’s US$2.2 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package, the CARES Act, as an example of how it needs to improve. She said Congress quickly passed the act but then people couldn’t access unemployment benefits. “The technology was the barrier – this digital infrastructure has been underinvested in for decades.”

Carnahan said part of the US$1bn boost to the Technology Modernisation Fund would be spent on GSA’s Login.gov service, which enables citizens to use a single password to access participating agencies’ services. Her ambition is for Login.gov, which currently has 30 million users, to increase to 100 million by next year. 

Not just about money

Carnahan acknowledged that the US government isn’t close to being able to compete with the private sector when it comes to salaries, but attracting talent isn’t just about money, she said. “Some people are motivated to serve and some of those people are technologists. We need to make it easy for them to put their skills to work in an environment where they are empowered to get things done,” she told Wired.

She pointed to the US Digital Corps, a recently-launched fellowship programme that aims to develop a new generation of tech leaders for the federal public service. She said a “a good on-ramp” for tech people at the beginning of their careers, who want to work in government, hadn’t previously existed.

Telework, she added, could be a key component of an attractive package for tech specialists aspiring to work in government.  

Despite senior Republicans campaigning to get the federal workforce back to their offices, Carnahan said the GSA is “leaning very heavily into remote work” and that every agency is weighing up the options and rethinking their space needs.

“We’re thinking a lot about right-sizing the footprint of federal space and working in different ways – federal coworking spaces and helping employees get the tools they need for telework,” she explained. “These aren’t things that are brand new in the private sector, but they haven’t really been tested in government. I think if we can offer impactful work, not unreasonable salaries, and people don’t have to move, that’s a pretty attractive package.”

Carnahan also acknowledged that “it can be a very cumbersome application process to apply for a full-time government job”, and that partly in recognition of this, the Office of Personnel Management and other agencies are re-evaluating their hiring practices.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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