Government Capacity

Improving Government Capacity: Unleashing the capacity, creativity, energy, and determination of the public sector workforce

07.08.24 | 13 min read | Text by Katie McCaskey & Peter Bonner

Peter Bonner is a Senior Fellow at FAS.

Katie: Peter, first, can you explain what government capacity means to you?

Peter: What government capacity means to me is ensuring that the people in the public sector, federal government primarily, have the skills, the tools, the technologies, the relationships, and the talent that help them meet their agency missions they need to do their jobs.

Those agency missions are really quite profound. I think we lose sight of this: if you’re working at the EPA, your job is to protect human health in the environment. If you’re working at the Department of the Interior, it’s to conserve and protect our natural resources and cultural heritage for the benefit of the public. If you’re working for HHS, you’re enhancing the health and well-being of all Americans. You’re working for the Department of Transportation, you’re ensuring a safe and efficient transportation system. And you can get into the national security agencies about protecting us from our enemies, foreign and domestic. These missions are amazing. Building that capacity so that the people can do their jobs better and more effectively is a critical and noble undertaking. Government employees are stewards of what we hold in common as a people. To me, that’s what government capacity is about.

Mr. Bonner’s Experience and Ambitions at FAS

You’ve had a long career in government – but how is it that you’ve come to focus on this particular issue as something that could make a big difference?

I’ve spent a  couple of decades building government capacity in different organizations and roles, most recently as a government executive and political appointee as an associate director at the Office of Personnel Management. Years ago I worked as a contractor with a number of different companies, building human capital and strategic consulting practices. In all of those roles, in one way or another, it’s been about building government capacity.

One of my first assignments when I worked as a contractor was working on the  Energy Star program, and helping to bridge the gaps between the public sector interests – wanting to create greater energy efficiency and reduce energy usage to address climate change – to the private sector interests – making sure their products were competitive and using market forces to demonstrate the effectiveness of federal policy. This work promoted energy efficiency across energy production, computers, refrigerators, HVAC equipment, even commercial building and residential housing. Part of the capacity building piece of that was working with the federal staff and the federal clients who ran those programs, but also making sure they had the right sets of collaboration skills to work effectively with the private sector around these programs and work effectively with other federal agencies. Agencies not only needed to work collaboratively wih the private sector, but across agencies as well. Those collaboration skills–those skills to make sure they’re working jointly inter-agency – don’t always come naturally because people feel protective about their own agency, their own budgets, and their own missions. So that’s an example of building capacity. 

Another project early on I was involved in was helping to develop a training program for inspectors of underground storage tanks. That’s pretty obscure, but underground storage tanks have been a real challenge in the nation in creating groundwater pollution. We developed an online course using simulations on how to detect leaks and underground storage tanks. The capacity building piece was getting the agencies and  tank inspectors at the state and local level to use this new learning technology to make their jobs easier and more effective. 

Capacity building examples abound – helping OPM build human capital frameworks and improve operating processes, improving agency performance management systems, enhancing the skills of Air Force medical personnel to deal with battlefield injuries, and on. I’ve been doing capacity building through HR transformation,  learning, leadership development, strategy and facilitation, human centered design, and looking at how do you develop HR and human capital systems that support that capacity building in the agencies. So across my career, those are the kinds of things that I’ve been involved in around government capacity.

What brought you to FAS and what you’re doing now? 

I left my job as the associate director for HR Solutions at the Office of Personnel Management last May with the intent of finding ways to continue to contribute to the effective functioning of the federal government. This opportunity came about from a number of folks I’d worked with while at OPM and elsewhere.

FAS is in a unique position to change the game in federal capacity building through thought leadership, policy development, strategic placement of temporary talent, and initiatives to bring more science and technical professionals to lead federal programs. 

I’m really trying to help change the game in talent acquisition and talent management and how they contribute to government capacity. That ranges from upfront hiring in the HR arena through to onboarding and performance management and into program performance.

I think what I’m driven by at FAS is to really unleash the capacity, the creativity, the energy, the determination of the public sector workforce to be able to do their jobs as efficiently and effectively as they know how. The number of people I know in the federal government that have great ideas on how to improve their programs in the bottom left hand drawer of their desk or on their computer desktop, that they can never get around to because of everything else that gets in the way. 

There are ways to cut through the clutter to help make hiring and talent management effective. Just in hiring: creative recruiting and sourcing for science and technical talent, using hiring flexibilities and hiring authorities on hand, equipping HR staffing specialists and hiring managers with the tools they need, working across agencies on common positions, accelerating background checks are all ways to speed up the hiring process and improve hiring quality.

It’s the stuff that gets in the way that inhibits their ability to do these things. So that unleashing piece is the real reason I’m here. When it comes to the talent management piece changing, if you can move the needle a little bit on the perception of public sector work and federal government work, because the perception, the negative perception of what it’s like to work in the federal government or the distrust in the federal government is just enormous. The barriers there are profound. But if we can move the needle on that just a little bit, and if we can change the candidate experience of the person applying for a federal job so that they, while it may be arduous, results in a positive experience for them and for the hiring manager and HR staffing specialist, that then becomes the seed bed for a positive employee experience in the federal job. That then becomes the seed bed for an effective customer experience because the linkage between employee experience and customer experience is direct. So if we can shift the needle on those things just a little bit, we then start to change the perception of what public sector work is like, and tap into that energy of what brought them to the public sector job in the first place, which by and large is the mission of the agency.

Using Emerging Technologies to Improve Government Capacity

How do you see emerging technologies assisting or helping that mission?

The emerging technologies in talent management are things that other sectors of the economy are working with and that the federal government is quickly catching up on. Everybody thinks the private sector has this lock picked. Well, not necessarily. Private sector organizations also struggle with HR systems that effectively map to the employee journey and that provide analytics that can guide HR decision-making along the way.

A bright spot for progress in government capacity is in recruiting and sourcing talent. Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Energy are using front end recruiting software to attract people into their organizations. The  Climate Corps, for example, or the Clean Energy Corps at Department of Energy. So they’re using those front end recruiting systems to bring people in and attract people in to submit the resumes and their applications that can again, create that positive initial candidate experience, then take ’em through the rest of the process. There’s work being done in automating and developing more effective online assessments from USA Hire, for example, so that if you’re in a particular occupation, you can take an online test when you apply and that test is going to qualify you for the certification list on that job.

Those are not emerging technologies but they are being deployed effectively in government. The mobile platforms to quickly and easily communicate with the applicants and communicate with the candidates at different stages of the process. Those things are coming online and already online in many of the agencies. 

In addition to some experimentation with AI tools, I think one of the more profound pieces around technologies is what’s happening at the program level that is changing the nature of the jobs government workers do that then impacts what kind of person an HR manager is  looking for. 

For example, while there are specific occupations focused on machine learning, AI, and data analytics, data literacy and acumen and using these tools going to be part of everyone’s job in the future. So facility with those analytic tools and with the data visualization tools that are out there is going to have a profound impact on the jobs themselves. Then you back that up to, okay, what kind of person am I looking for here? I need somebody with that skill set coming in. Or who can be easily up-skilled into that. That’s true for data literacy, data analytics, some of the AI skill sets that are coming online. It’s not just the technologies within the talent management arena, but it’s the technologies that are happening in the front lines and the programs that then determine what kind of person I’m looking for and impact those jobs.

The Significance of Permitting Reform for Hiring

You recently put on a webinar for the Permitting Council. Do you mind explaining what that is and what the goal of the webinar was?

The Permitting Council was created under what’s called the Fast 41 legislation, which is legislation to improve the capacity and the speed at which environmental permits are approved so that we can continue with federal projects. Permitting has become a real hot button issue right now because the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law created all of these projects in the field, some on federal lands, some on state and local lands, and some on tribal or private sector lands, that then create the need to do an environmental permit of some kind in order to get approval to build. 

So under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we’re trying to create internet for all, for example, and particularly provide internet access in rural communities where they haven’t had it before, and people who perhaps couldn’t afford it. That requires building cell towers and transmission lines on federal lands, and that then requires permits, require a permitting staff or a set of permitting contractors to actually go in and do that work.

Permitting has been, from a talent perspective, underresourced. They have not had the capacity, they have not had the staff even to keep up with the permits necessitated by these new pieces of legislation. So getting the right people hired, getting them in place, getting the productive environmental scientists, community planners, the scientists of different types, marine biologists, landscape folks, the fish and wildlife people who can advise on how best to do those environmental impact statements or categorical exclusions as a result of the National Environmental Protection Act – it has been a challenge. Building that capacity in the agencies that are responsible for permitting is really a high leverage point for these pieces of legislation because if I can’t build the cell tower, I then don’t realize the positive results from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. And you can think of the range of things that those pieces of legislation have fostered around the country from clean water systems in underserved communities, to highways, to bridges, to roads, to airports.

Another example is offshore wind. So you need marine biologists to be able to help do the environmental impact statements around building the wind turbines offshore and examine the effect on the marine habitats. It’s those people that the Department of Interior, the Department of Energy, and Department of Commerce need to hire to come in and run those programs and do those permits effectively. That’s what the Permitting Council does.

One of the things that we worked with with OPM and the Permitting Council together on is creating a webinar so that we got the hiring managers and the HR staffing specialists in the room at the same time to talk about the common bottlenecks that they face in the hiring process. After doing outreach and research, we created journey maps and a set of personas to identify a couple of the most salient and common challenges and high leverage challenges that they face.

Overcoming Hiring Bottlenecks for Permitting Talent, a webinar presented to government hiring managers, May 2024

Looking at the ecosystem within hiring, from what gets in the way in recruiting and sourcing, all the way through to onboarding, to focusing in on the position descriptions and what do you do if you don’t have an adequate position description upfront when you’re trying to hire that environmental scientist to the background check process and the suitability process. What do you do when things get caught in that suitability process? And if you can’t bring those folks on board in a timely fashion you risk losing them. 

We focused on a couple of the key challenges in that webinar, and we had, I don’t know, 60 or 70 people who were there, the hiring managers and HR staffing specialists who took away from that a set of tools that they can use to accelerate and improve that hiring process and get high quality hires on quickly to assist with the permitting.

The Permitting Council has representatives from each of the agencies that do permitting, and works with them on cross agency activities. The council also has funding from some of these pieces of legislation to foster the permitting process, either through new software or people process, the ability to get the permits done as quickly as possible. So that’s what the webinar was about. I We’re talking about doing a second one to look at the more systemic and policy related changes, challenges in permitting hiring.

The Day One Project 2025

FAS has launched its Day One Project 2025, a massive call for nonpartisan, science-based policy ideas that a next presidential administration can utilize on “day one” – whether the new administration is Democrat or Republican. One of the areas we’ve chosen to focus on is Government Capacity. Will you be helping evaluate the ideas that are submitted?

I’ve had input into the Day One Project, and particularly around the talent pieces in the government capacity initiative, and also procurement and innovation in that area. I think the potential of that to help set the stage for talent reform more broadly, be it legislative policy, regulatory or the risk averse culture we have in the federal government. I think the impact of that Day One Project could be pretty profound if we get the right energy behind it. So one of the things that I’ve known for a while, but has come clear to me over the past five months working with FAS, is that there are black boxes in the talent management environment in the federal government. What I mean by that is that it goes into this specialized area of expertise and nobody knows what happens in that specialized area until something pops out the other end.

How do you shed light on the inside of those black boxes so it’s more transparent what happens? For instance: position descriptions when agencies are trying to hire someone. Sometimes what happens with position descriptions is that the job needs to be reclassified because it’s changed dramatically from the previous position description. Well, I know a little about classification and what happens in the classification process, but to most people looking from the outside to hiring managers, that’s a black box. Nobody knows what goes on. I mean, they don’t know what goes on within that classification process to know that it’s going to be worthwhile for them once they have the position description at the other end and are able to do an effective job announcement. Shedding light on that, I think has the potential to increase transparency and trust between the hiring manager and the HR folks or the program people and the human people.

If we’re able to create that greater transparency. If we’re able to tell the candidates when they come in and apply for a job where they are in the hiring process and whether they made the cert list or didn’t make the cert list. And if they are in the CT list, what’s next in terms of their assessment and the process? If they’ve gone through the interview, where are we in the decision deliberations about offering me the job? Same thing in suitability. Those are many black boxes all the way, all the way across. And creating transparency and communication around it, I think will go a long way, again, to moving that needle on the perception of what federal work is and what it’s like to work in the system. So it’s a long answer to a question that I guess I can summarize by saying, I think we are in a target rich environment here. There’s lots of opportunity here to help change the game.