Intel agencies determined to avoid another workforce ‘bathtub' effect

Thursday - 5/8/2014, 3:49am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD Reporter, Federal News Radio

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The intelligence community, like the rest of the government, is coping with a sudden budget decrease. But leaders say they won't repeat the mistakes they made during the last budget downturn, when agencies all but ceased hiring new personnel.

When the nation's biggest intelligence target dissolved with the collapse of the Soviet Union, cutting the intelligence budget seemed like a reasonable step. So over the following decade, U.S. intelligence spending fell by 23 percent. And since officials were more focused on satellite imagery and other new technologies than on human intelligence, the workforce took a disproportionate hit.

Intelligence agencies mostly used an attrition strategy to manage their shrinking personnel budgets, and at the low point of the budget cuts, in 1995, the CIA brought only 25 new officers into its clandestine service. The rate of new hires was similar across the intelligence community.

"In the 90s, everything pretty much came to a halt in terms of hiring, and then it was twice as hard to get it started again. We've learned from that as a community," Deborah Kircher, the intelligence community's chief human capital officer, said Wednesday at a forum organized by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance and Government Executive Media Group. "The IC agencies have tried to keep the hiring pipeline open during this downturn. Not every agency has been able to do that at the highest level, but everybody's making a conscious effort."

The 9/11 commission pointed to the 1990s staffing cuts as one contributing factor to the 2001 terrorist attacks, but the huge drop in hiring, followed by a 180-degree reversal in the aftermath of 9/11, created major distortions in the age and experience profiles of intelligence professionals that the IC leadership still is struggling with today.

Need to develop careerists

A RAND Corporation study of 2007 workforce data found the IC hired more than 40 percent of its employees in the years since 9/11, and a similar proportion has been working since the Cold War still was underway. That leaves the IC with very few people who are midway through their careers and who are ready to replace the seasoned employees who will leave government during the current budget drawdown.

"We created a bathtub in the 1990s, and we can't afford to stop the spigot of new talent," said Deborah Hartman, the director for human resources at the Defense Intelligence Agency. "Strategic management is key to this. We need to develop our folks internally as well as bringing in new folks so that we can develop careerists who can go across the IC and be successful."

Hartman is one of several IC officials who say they are taking a more thoughtful approach to the current spending downturn, both so that they can manage current workforce needs and so that they don't create another bathtub for their successors 20 years from now.

There are some reasons to believe they'll be successful. For one, there was no such thing as a chief human capital officer in most intelligence agencies, let alone one that could oversee all 17 agencies during the 1990s cutbacks. All of the IC agencies now have CHCOs, but that's largely a result of a law Congress passed in 2004. Before that, with no one managing the workforce at a strategic level, the cuts tended to follow the government's default "salami-slicing" approach to managing funding cuts.

This time around, strategic workforce management is a topic that's front-and-center before agency directors, Hartman said. DIA's director leads one of three panels her agency is using to manage a complex array of human capital decisions, including which missions and job functions are most essential, now that the agency is once again operating under constrained funding.

"The Career Management Board is where we look at strategic decisions across DIA and how we make choices about the types of positions we're going to fill and that are going to be our strategic baseline," she said. "The second tier is the Career Management Council, which is about moving individuals across the enterprise, because we have people in the combatant commands across the world and we also have a lot of people in the United States. The third tier is at the worker level, the Career Advisory Group, which lets them provide ideas to leadership about where they see gaps in workforce talent or their own career progression. We're looking at all of that across the DIA construct."

Since budgets aren't climbing, intelligence agencies will have to make room for new hires by culling staff from the more senior levels of their workforces.