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Rebuilding the Federal Government Through Better Training

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
November 30, 2021

November 12, 2021, will be the second anniversary of my Training Debt column for PA Times. The Training Debt column turned out to be a popular article, and I was invited to speak about reforming federal government training in March 2020. But, unfortunately, the quarantine happened, and the talk was delayed until we could meet in person. So, I was still waiting to see when the in-person presentation would be scheduled.

As I explained in the article, training debt is much like technical debt. Technical debt occurs when organizations take “quick and dirty” shortcuts to save time and resources, promising to go back later to make the technical design better. There are three types of technical debt. The first is deliberate technical debt, in which the organization deliberately creates a technical debt to rush the product to market. The second type of technical debt is caused by accident or when the original technical design becomes outdated. Finally, the third type of technical debt is when more features are added to a simple process until the process becomes unwieldy.

Training debt can also be one of the three types of technical debt. The third type of training debt is rare, while the first two types are common. The quarantine has accelerated the accumulation of training debt as organizations scrambled to provide more training online and retool their training staff to provide training to the remote employees. The federal government has been steadily accumulating significant amounts of training debt before the 2020 quarantine. The last 18 months have just accelerated the building of training debt.

“Old Dog, New Tricks.” The Federal Government’s Need for Strategically Training the Federal Workforce

Pop quiz: When did the White House proclaim the following?: “[A]dvances in technology and increased skills needs are changing the workplace at an ever-increasing rate. These advances can make federal employees more productive and provide improved service to our customers, the American taxpayers. We need to ensure that we continue to train federal employees to take full advantage of these technological advances and to acquire the skills and learning needed to succeed in a changing workplace.”

  1. 2021
  2. 2010
  3. 2006
  4. 1999

The example above comes from Beth Simone Noveck’s article in the fall 2021 issue of Democracy, “Old Dog, New Tricks: Retraining and the Road to Government Reform.” She argues that to make government work better and increase the public’s trust in government, there must be significant reform in federal government employee training. The Government Employee Training Act was enacted in 1958 and was last amended in 2004. Yet, even now, little information is gathered on the training needs of federal government employees, especially in the skills they need for critical thinking, design thinking and working with automation.

The Need for a Modern Training Strategy

While federal departments do offer a plethora of training programs in everything from ethics to plain English writing to records management, as well as technical training for specific jobs (i.e., nuclear plant engineer or food safety inspector), the federal government has not made a widespread investment in universal training and skill-building. It has not made a bet on those skills public servants need to know to succeed in the twenty-first century.

I can attest to the statement above. As a training and development professional in the federal government, I launched several training initiatives in critical thinking, design thinking, agile project management and product management. Some programs were discouraged or delayed, while other programs launched well but were not sustained. I had more success in championing innovative training techniques but faced much resistance when I went beyond the usual three-hour PowerPoint-based training heavy on lecturing.

Dr. Noveck offers five recommendations to improve federal government training. The first recommendation is to perform a governmentwide training needs analysis to determine what federal employees know and the innovative problem-solving skills they want to learn. The second recommendation is to issue a new Executive Order on training and capacity building to encourage the executive agencies to refocus on training their employees. The third recommendation is to make the innovative problem-solving skills training free, and the fourth recommendation provides incentives to employees to take the training. The fifth and final recommendation is to encourage pilots in the best way to deliver innovation skills training.

Combating the Three Types of Training Debt

In the training debt article, I recommended that governments monitor their training debt as closely as they do with their financial and technical debt. I also advised that organizations should avoid taking on more debt than they have the resources to handle. However, with training debt, government agencies may have spent decades accumulating it. I believe Dr. Noveck’s five recommendations are an excellent first step. But, the federal government needs to empower an existing agency (the Office of Personnel Management, perhaps) or create a new agency to ensure that federal agency employees receive the training they need to do their jobs better and serve the American public.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Navy’s Inspector General Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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