The first priority area in the PMA is strengthening and empowering the federal workforce. The focus of this priority, summarized on performance.gov, is to “make the federal government an ideal, modern and forward-thinking employer.” To do this, the PMA notes, “We need to focus on those who keep our government running and deliver services each day.”
Successful change in this area is measured through four broad metrics in the PMA.
||Create a more equitable employee engagement experience across the federal workforce, including across employee groups and organizational units within agencies.
||Improve the federal hiring process to efficiently hire the best talent.
||Attract the right talent for the right roles.
||Promote diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility strategies and practices across all human capital activities.
Federal agencies have focused on improving employee engagement and satisfaction for many years as seen in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ® rankings and reports produced by the Partnership and BCG. The PMA encourages agencies to refocus and reprioritize these efforts. Data plays a key role in this priority, not only to measure success, but to help identify and solve problems.
The need for agencies to focus their attention on employee well-being has become increasingly important. “Taking care of our people and ensuring continuity of operations in support of our mission during an unprecedented global pandemic and amid multiple global crises has been one of the greatest challenges the department has taken on in its history,” said a senior State Department official.
In developing this report, we examined efforts to improve the employee experience at the Department of the Air Force. While military departments often operate differently than other federal agencies, our investigation of the Air Force shows that many workforce initiatives are equally well-suited for the civilian sector.
The Air Force has used data to better understand the staffing needs of its large workforce, and data is continually used throughout the lifecycle of a service member to create a better employee experience. The Air Force also provides data to service members to empower them to find solutions to issues affecting their work life.
Using data to understand the staffing needs of a large workforce
The Air Force employs nearly 670,000 personnel, including active-duty military members, civilian employees and those in the reserve component. The Air Force’s mission requires a diverse civilian and military staff covering more than 90 major installations around the world. In an average year, the Air Force recruits approximately 30,000 new active-duty personnel. Given the sheer size of the agency and the complexity and diversity of talent management, keeping track and making best use of employee data is a necessary function.
The Air Force has long been a leader in using data to understand its staffing environment, and in particular its staffing needs for both civilian and military personnel. Data can be a tremendous resource that informs changes to existing policies to support personnel needs.
For example, the Air Force reviews macro-level military recruitment and retention trends on a monthly basis to see whether it is on track to hit its annual target of active-duty military numbers. If recruitment and retention activities are off track, the Air Force can modify policies or approaches to better reach its goals. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Air Force saw historically high retention rates for active military members and was poised to surpass its needed staffing numbers. This provided an opportunity for the Air Force to revisit policies that constrained active-duty military members from leaving or entering the reserve component.
“We offered these voluntary measures and we incentivized people who wanted to leave sooner than they could to move into the reserve component where we knew we had holes and weren’t hitting our numbers,” said Gwen DeFilippi, the Air Force assistant deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services.
In the Air Force, an airman’s move to a new base or enrollment in an educational program can come with additional service requirements to ensure the Air Force’s investment is well spent. DeFilippi said this changed during the pandemic; airmen who owed service because of these programs were no longer constrained by their service requirements and could enter the reserves. This agile approach benefited both the Air Force’s staffing goals and its active military members’ engagement and preferences.
Data also improved the Air Force’s ability to hire civilian staff more quickly. For example, the Air Force developed a dashboard that shows the status of every job search and who is responsible for taking the next action and by what date. That transparency holds staff accountable and helped Air Force cut its time-to-hire from 120 days to under 80 days as of October 2019. This is a dramatic improvement since the federal government takes an average of 98 days to make a hire—more than twice the time it takes the private sector.
The Air Force is currently updating its information technology personnel systems to focus on the employee experience by combining disparate datasets and applying personnel data to a variety of uses. Like many other federal agencies, the Air Force’s current HR systems depend on technologies that date back as far as the 1970s. Due to decades of HR IT systems being built on top of each other, employees were often asked to input data they had already given regularly and had to navigate a difficult user experience to complete both basic and complex tasks, such as reviewing benefits or searching current job openings.
The Air Force is in the midst of a massive IT overhaul to improve this employee experience. This initiative will be successful only if data sources that currently live across different silos of the organization can be combined. Because of this, the Air Force has been focusing on creating a data lake.
Prior to the existence of a data lake, employee information was kept in a variety of locations. For example, an employee’s personnel record lived separately from information about their flying activities, which was often maintained by the air base where they are located. There were also separate medical databases that included information such as medical restrictions on where an employee could be assigned.
“[Medical restrictions] were in a totally different database and we have all of these [different] data sources, and we had very much limited ourselves. So with this data lake, we are now pulling in all the data so that you can have a better user experience,” DeFilippi said.
As other agencies think about how to strengthen and empower their workforces, access to data will be critical. When all employee data is in one place, it allows an agency’s personnel office to more easily make informed decisions about staffing and understand trends. The Air Force’s experience demonstrates that upgraded data and IT systems around personnel pave the way for an improved employee experience.
Focusing on Employee Experience
In August 2020, Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the Air Force chief of staff, published the report Accelerate Change or Lose, which emphasizes the empowerment of airmen as a key priority for the Air Force.
“We must empower airmen at all levels, delegating to the lowest capable and competent level possible, mindful that with empowerment and trust comes accountability,” Brown wrote. “These efforts must also enhance the quality of service and quality of life for our airmen and their families, making the U.S. Air Force an attractive career choice for all Americans.”
In addition to overhauling its HR IT system, the Air Force has made several substantial changes to improve the employee experience of uniformed and civilian personnel. These changes offer useful lessons in how other federal agencies can support the PMA priorities through a strong culture around data and evidence.
Until recently, active-duty military members were not allowed much input into their place assignments. Airmen might request to be placed in a location without knowing whether their skills were needed there. To improve both the employee experience and efficiency, the Air Force adopted an algorithm, similar to the one used for medical school internship matching, to allow airmen to have a bigger say in where they would like to be stationed. Now, airmen can see what positions are available in an online talent marketplace and bid on jobs accordingly.
“We’re better able to accommodate individual preferences and start to move ourselves into where we need to be for the 21st century, which is to recognize that human capital is probably the most precious resource we have. So we need to nurture and retain it,” DeFilippi said.
At the Air Force, workforce data is available from the time a prospective service member starts thinking about enlisting through the end of their career. The Air Force launched a Work Interest Navigator that helps prospective service members understand what kinds of jobs are available to them in the military and how their skills may be used.
The Air Force continues this engagement after a service member joins the Air Force by making opportunities available to new airmen that include classes and degrees through the Community College of the Air Force. These opportunities are tracked throughout the employee lifecycle to allow the Air Force to better understand what type of training is being used most often. The data can also be analyzed to demonstrate how upskilling opportunities tie to promotions, and which educational investments are most likely to result in desired outcomes.
This approach to collecting and analyzing upskilling data can prove highly useful to other agencies. By tracking professional development outcomes of staff during the employee lifecycle, leaders can better understand which efforts are most beneficial for employees in the long run.
Letting Staff Use Data to Solve Problems
The Partnership’s 2021 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings place the Air Force in the upper quartile for “Effective Leadership: Empowerment” for its civilian employees.
This theme of empowerment permeates several data initiatives implemented recently by the Air Force. Most notably, the Air Force empowers employees and service members to take control of their careers through a process called functional community management.
A key element of functional community management is the development team, which reviews individual cases to provide specific career advice. For example, if a development team notices the individual has a high school background, they can recommend the Air Force’s community college program so that their workforce over time will have more graduates with stronger writing and analytical skills.
In addition, the teams have been critical to understanding diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility needs across the workforce. These development teams have been charged to think about barriers to success, but in 2021 placed an emphasis on DEIA.
The personnel team gave the development teams all the diversity data available for their department, including historic promotion rates by race, ethnicity and gender. The development teams were then tasked to use the data to understand barriers to success within their departments and how they planned to address them. This process has now gone through its second cycle with updated data and is seeing improved action plans. The Air Force also provided facilitators to these development groups to help drill deep into what can be difficult conversations. This program highlights an important process of equipping leaders with the data they need to identify concerns and take corrective actions.
In addition to asking functional communities to evaluate barriers to service, the Air Force has barrier analysis working groups composed of volunteers who provide grassroots perspectives on barriers to service. The Air Force now has six teams that represent different races and ethnicities, along with an LGBTQ initiative team as well. These teams are given dashboards on diversity so they can look at the data while making recommendations. The teams also have access to the agency’s survey team “so that when they have a hypothesis, they can go out with survey research to see if we can confirm that it’s an issue,” DeFilippi explained.
Through these efforts, the Air Force has worked to both strengthen and empower its workforce. Employees are given knowledge from their personnel teams to better understand and help solve workforce problems across the agency.
- Organization: Collecting workforce data and maintaining it in an accessible database allows multiple stakeholders to access the same information and plan for future staffing needs. This also improves the employee experience by preventing employees from having to input the same information multiple times.
- Collection: Tracking professional development opportunities of employees allows leaders to understand which efforts are most beneficial for employees (for example, those that correspond to higher retention and promotion rates).
- Employee-Led: When employees are given access to aggregated HR data, they can provide context to the data and help solve workforce problems across the agency.