Handling the human factor: 3 considerations for building federal workforce technology skills

Handling the human factor: 3 considerations for building federal workforce technology skills
By Mike Smith
Senior Director, Data Analytics
Jun 13, 2023

Increasing digital literacy remains a top priority across the federal workforce. Opportunities presented by artificial intelligence and machine learning, in addition to ever-present cybersecurity threats, continue to drive congressional and agency agendas. The Federal Cybersecurity Workforce Assessment Act of 2015 required workforce planning for all cyber-related positions across the federal government, including recruitment, training, and retention strategies. And just last year, President Biden signed the bipartisan AI Training Act, requiring training programs for acquisition professionals to ensure that federal employees know both the capabilities and risks of AI, with new legislation being introduced now to expand the training to all federal leadership. 

Yet many federal agencies struggle to meet these requirements. Ninety-four percent of IT workers surveyed in ICF's 2023 federal digital modernization report cited staffing as a barrier to reaching this goal. Respondents also highlighted a lack of knowledge in using digital solutions (48%) and insufficient time to reskill (41%) as specific challenges facing their agencies' digital modernization efforts. 

When leaders don’t guide employees to prioritize learning about new technology or employees don’t understand how technology can positively impact their work, the technology itself can be perceived as a threat, and its benefits will not be realized. To avoid that fate, federal agencies need to prioritize upskilling and behavior change alongside the development of the technology itself. Here are three key factors agencies should consider to effectively build workforce technology skills. 

Create solutions that meet learners at their technology expertise level

ICF's 2023 federal digital modernization report found that 97% of federal IT and tech workers embrace upskilling with optimism, but technological expertise among employees can vary. Depending on an individual’s level of expertise, technical learning can present an overwhelming array of options.

If you're trying to achieve enterprise transformation, it can't be just the tech people alone who are upping their skill set.

In addition, each individual’s learning needs are different. Some workers—such as engineers—may need deep technological fluency, but not breadth. On the other hand, managers may need broad fluency to assist their direct reports, but they don’t need great depth on a specific topic. If you're trying to achieve enterprise transformation, it can't be just the tech people alone who are upping their skill set.


ICF recently partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop a scalable upskilling strategy that allows employees to train toward new roles, such as program manager, business analyst, or site reliability engineer. The self-paced program offers progressive courses based on employees' technology comfort level (beginner, intermediate, advanced) in addition to live presentations and individual coaching sessions.

Accommodate employees' varied time constraints and learning preferences

Agencies should incorporate different kinds of instruction when developing learning solutions. Offering microlearning options, for example, allows employees to acquire skills in small increments over time — a more feasible undertaking for workers already under stress (according to the 2022 OPM FEVS Survey, nearly 40% of federal employees characterize their workload as "unreasonable"). Agencies also must also ensure that any digital training programs meet Section 508 accessibility standards and be designed to engage users with disabilities. 

Leaders should guide employees to integrate technology learning and development into the regular flow of work as much as possible, bundling skill acquisition with employees' daily duties. Agencies might stand up fusion teams that bring together technical and non-technical employees to work with emerging technology or data sets, practicing new skills to solve a real-world problem. Rotational job shadowing or mentoring programs can help expose employees to different roles within the organization. Managers can also encourage staff to actively participate in external academic or industry communities and cultivate team norms that expect learning to be brought back and shared with the rest of the team.


In partnership with CDC, ICF planned and implemented a cloud and data fluency cohort-based learning project, which provided training in cloud computing, data collection, governance, and other subjects related to developing and maintaining data tools. The program combined eight weeks of self-paced training courses in cloud basics and presentations with subject matter experts who connected the content of the courses to work being done at CDC. The program concluded with capstone projects, where participants could apply what they'd learned to solve a real-world problem for the Office of the Chief Information Officer.

Ensure the learning strategy aligns with organizational mission and goals

Any learning and development strategy needs to clearly align with the organization’s agenda for digital transformation. Heads of learning and development should collaborate with their agency’s chief information officer and chief operations officer to identify the agency’s needs, then tailor learning pathways relevant to different parts of the enterprise.

When employees clearly understand how their individual use of new technology fits into the organization’s strategy or mission, they're more likely to explore and develop skills relevant to their role. If this link isn't expressed or clear, employees may be demotivated or acquire skills that don’t materially contribute to their job function. When organizations carefully diagnose what tech skills are needed to execute their strategy or mission, and then offer flexible learning solutions that build those skills, employees experience their time and energy spent on learning as part of the fuel that’s propelling their organization forward. They feel part of the organization’s transformation and growth. Several positive outcomes result, including improved retention of high performers, stronger employee engagement, and better individual and team performance.


ICF was a strategic partner in the U.S. Air Mobility Command's journey to transform the enterprise into a digital-age learning organization. At the start of the project, we engaged the command’s senior leadership team to learn about the organization's priorities and what competencies were required to address them. Building upon this knowledge, we helped develop a comprehensive competency framework to chart career pathways from the lowest levels of the organization to the top, as well as the skills required to advance in those pathways. We then partnered with leaders throughout the organization to develop 17 different learning experiences to develop those skill sets through a combination of coursework and experiential learning.

Selecting the right strategic partner 

Implementing a comprehensive technology learning and development program requires flexible, agile, and data-driven change management activities that incorporate and respond to the diverse perspectives within an agency's workforce. The program also must have strong links to the organizational strategy and mission. That means engaging all parts of the agency—not just the IT department and workforce development team.

To optimize the return on investment when implementing upskilling programs, agencies often recognize the necessity of seeking additional support. When requesting proposals for such partnerships, agencies should include these three considerations to ensure the consultant they select can truly deliver the agency's desired outcomes. 

Meet the author
  1. Mike Smith, Senior Director, Data Analytics

    Michael is a data analytics expert with more than 15 years of experience in strategy, innovation, and project management. View bio

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