Defense workforce caps put key skills at risk

Monday - 1/21/2013, 7:47pm EST

For the past two years, the Defense Department has mandated a cap on its civilian workforce in a bid to cut overhead costs.

But in a new report, the Government Accountability Office questions whether DoD has done enough to ensure core competencies and key skills aren't lost or left unfilled as the department complies with the workforce caps.

In 2010, faced with ballooning personnel costs, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered a series of initiatives designed to reduce duplication and cut costs. That included capping the size of the civilian workforce at 2010 levels through at least 2013. DoD later extended the timetable and, in 2011, expanded the order to include the military branches.

GAO found mixed success in the services' efforts to keep the lid on their workforces — the Navy and the Air Force both stayed within their caps, but the Army did not.

Still, DoD leaders said the caps saved the department $2.2 billion in 2012, alone, and that all told are predicted to save another $11.5 billion through 2016.

Key skills in danger?

However, GAO questioned whether the steps taken by DoD were adequate to ensure that key skills were maintained.

"In implementing the cap, it is unclear the extent to which DoD maintained departmentwide priorities for critical skills and competencies needed to achieve current and future missions," GAO auditors wrote in the report.

Under a 2006 law, DoD is required to conduct competency-gap assessments to identify possible shortfalls in the skills of the civilian workforce.

But DoD has been slow to implement those assessments. In a report last September, GAO reported the Pentagon had only completed the assessments for eight of the department's 22 mission-critical positions.

DoD isn't even scheduled to complete the gap assessments until 2015, and the department hasn't documented any other ways it will maintain core competencies, even as efforts continue apace to constrain the size of the civilian workforce.

While the services are granted some exceptions to the caps to maintain staff in priority areas, such as acquisition, GAO suggested DoD should go further to maintain critical skills.

"We continue to believe that the department is not in a position to fully justify the size of its workforce until it has fully addressed its mandate to identify areas of critical skill and competency gaps within the civilian workforce," GAO auditors wrote.

Among the agency's recommendations, GAO said the defense secretary should order the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness to use the gap assessments "to make informed decisions for possible future reductions or justify the size of the force that it has."

DoD partially agreed with the recommendations.

RELATED STORIES:

DoD extends civilian hiring restrictions through 2018

House lawmakers object to defense civilian workforce cap

Air Force marks 4,500 more civilian jobs for elimination