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Digital Talent Management Handbook

A comprehensive guide on how government agencies can recruit, hire, onboard, and retain digital talent.

Developing a digital talent strategy

After you understand your talent gaps and established goals and metrics, it’s time to develop a digital talent strategy. A comprehensive digital talent strategy will combine the following approaches:

  • Recruiting new digital talent
  • Recognizing and training existing technology talent
  • Preparing government employees to work collaboratively with technical teams
  • Leveraging alternative sources of talent
  • Using technology to create additional capacity

Recruiting new digital talent

Modernizing the skills of current technical workers in government is necessary, but it does take time and effort. To improve services today, you need to recruit and hire new digital talent into government. Hiring today means you’ll be able to leverage fresh perspectives, new tools, and new technologies sooner rather than later.

Consider hiring for shorter durations

Governments tend to hire people as permanent employees. Hiring happens infrequently and is difficult because you’re potentially employing someone for decades.

18F, the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have used fellowship mechanisms and special hiring authorities to hire digital talent into government for “tours of duty” that can last up to four years. The mechanism you use will depend on the hiring authorities available to you.

Attracting talent to bright spots

It’s easier to attract digital talent to come work for the government if they know they’re joining a team. Hire digital talent into teams, creating bright spots of talent. This team should have the organizational support necessary to succeed — be open and public about that support.

There a few different ways to create bright spots:

  • A centralized hub supporting multiple agencies — 18F and USDS are centralized hubs that work on projects for different agencies. (See 18F’s partnership principles). One of the benefits of this approach is that it opens the door for teams to work on problems that span multiple agencies. It also allows for shared solutions, resulting in economies of scale.
  • Dedicated agency teams — These teams are an embedded part of an agency’s mission and share the same values. The teams can form around critical services, providing long-term support. They can build the strong, lasting relationships, and trust needed to effect change.

Recognizing and training existing technology talent

"It's common that there are dozens or even hundreds of civil servants who both know how the system works inside and out and have been trying to change it to improve outcomes for years. While it's likely that building a delivery-driven government will require hiring new talent, failing to recognize, elevate, and support the champions you already have (and who have the battle scars) as a new generation of leaders can set a change agenda back years, even decades."

Jennifer Pahlka

Find people to guide new technology teams

New teams of digital talent will need to deliberately focus on building partnerships and mutual respect with existing government employees, while simultaneously learning how to navigate the bureaucracy. To accelerate this process, embed seasoned government employees into these new teams.

Find people in technology roles who are willing to guide and work with a new team while learning new methods. Recruit these folks from across government and bring them into your agency (use temporary assignments if you need to). Finding people that are the right cultural fit is important. Identify capable people who’ve been frustrated with the inability to get things done in their current roles, and give them a platform to shine. They’ll turn into your best agents of change.

Plan to send them to formal training for human-centered design, agile, DevOps, and other skills as needed. They’ll learn on the job as well, but the investment in formal training will make this easier.

Preparing government employees to work collaboratively with technical teams

All government employees — including those outside of your technology team — will need training and support to help them work collaboratively on technology projects. At a minimum, they’ll need to understand the basics of human-centered design, product management, and agile project management.

Plan to offer incentives and opportunities for continuously training your staff. Your staff needs to keep up with the pace of change in technology. The section on Keeping skills and ideas fresh discusses how to do this in detail.

Leveraging alternative sources of talent

Hiring people isn’t the only way to access digital talent. Consider some alternatives to increase the digital talent density on your team:

  • Partner with universities to offer internships. Government offers the ability for students to make an impact.
  • Support and partner with technology boot camps such as General Assembly, or programs like Coding it Forward, to hire recent graduates.
  • Partner with non-profit, civic-technology organizations such as Code For America.
  • Bring in freelancers on short-duration, temporary assignments to solve a particular problem. This can work well for tasks that don’t need to be done frequently, such as setting up DevOps pipelines or uncovering security bugs.

These alternative options for talent work best when projects are well defined.

Using technology to create additional capacity

Government agencies are increasingly asked to do more with less — smaller budgets, fewer staff. Many government organizations are used to thinking of technology as a cost center rather than a mission enabler. But the right technology can help you do more with less, such as automating tedious, manual work.

Although machine learning and artificial intelligence are often touted as necessary automation tools, they’re difficult to implement well in environments that aren’t ready for modern technology. Luckily, there are often simpler alternatives to many labor-intensive tasks:

  • Self-service, web-based tools for common tasks like password resets and data edits
  • Software as a Service (SaaS) tools, like G Suite or Office 365, for collaboration instead of hosting your own tools
  • Cloud-based hosting instead of self-hosted data centers for compute and storage infrastructure
  • Web-based forms (when forms are necessary) to replace mailing paper back and forth

Digital teams are well-suited to looking at entire processes to determine where technology can add value.

Checklist

  • Create a comprehensive digital talent strategy
  • Use technology to create additional capacity

Case study: U.K. Government Digital Service

The U.K. Government Digital Service (GDS) is the oldest and one of the most successful of the government digital service teams. In many ways, it set the standards for teams in the U.S., including 18F and USDS. GDS operates on a mixed model — they hire people into a centralized team but also help other agencies staff their own teams. Through this model, they’ve brought hundreds of technologists into the U.K. government.

One of the core functions of the centralized team is to create shared standards and tools. For example, it’s responsible for the GOV.UK Design System that standardizes the look, feel, and interaction for U.K. government websites, as well as for shared services like Verify, an online identity management system.

GDS also sets the standards for hiring, and helps hire a variety of technologists into the U.K. government. These designers, engineers, and other experts are placed within agencies and work with other government staff to deliver vital public services.

Another key to the GDS’s success is its spending oversight authority. GDS must approve any IT acquisition over £5 million. This helps ensure that large technology projects adhere to key standards (such as the GOV.UK Design System) and follow best practices (such as user-centered design).