February 27, 2024

Power of the People: Harnessing the Nation’s Human Capital through Remote Work

Insight from The Pitch 2023: A Competition of New Ideas

People power is the core of U.S. national security. From the National Cybersecurity Strategy and the President’s Management Agenda to the CHIPS and Science Act, the federal government has identified the need for an agile, diverse workforce to address the national security challenges of tomorrow. However, it simultaneously faces multiple emerging human capital challenges. At the same time as experts call attention to talent gaps that could threaten American competitiveness in critical, high-tech sectors (e.g., quantum computing, artificial intelligence), a significant portion of the current federal workforce is nearing retirement age; employees over 55 make up nearly 29 percent, and the average age of the federal workforce is more than five years greater than the national average. Fortunately, the government has an underutilized tool at its disposal to address these human capital and national security risks: remote work.

What is meant by remote work?

Remote work provides a discrete tool to find the best talents in the United States to staff national security bodies. Regrettably, remote work is often mistakenly conflated with telework in the bureaucracy. Telework is a hybrid structure in which employees have a set schedule of days on site—reporting regularly at their local office—and days off site (i.e., at home). On the other hand, remote work does not have such regular on-site requirements and can designate an employee’s office outside of the residential/commuting area. For example, a Virginia teleworker can arrange to work from home two days a week but still reports in person to the DC office on the other three. With remote work, an AI expert living in California who is unable to move can still work for a central office where those skills are sought (e.g., Washington, DC). Thus, remote work enables the government to digitally harness the expertise of skilled workers across the nation. While telework addresses work/life balance issues (and served as an emergency preparedness effort exercised during the COVID-19 pandemic), remote work provides the federal government with access to the human capital necessary for national security.

This distinction between remote work and telework matters. Bipartisan return-to-office efforts have focused on ending telework arrangements that developed under pandemic conditions. While the merits of these return-to-work initiatives are debated, the issue of remote work should be viewed separately. Rather than a quality-of-life issue for existing employees, remote work is a long-term, strategic tool for recruitment of new, highly skilled employees.

Has remote work shown recruitment success?

From June to October 2022, remote work postings in USAJobs attracted a greater proportion of women and minority candidates than did on-site positions, and 17 times more applications than postings for on-site jobs. Notably, those remote opportunities dramatically broadened the geographic reach of federal vacancies; the remote listings drew in candidates from 30 more states than did non-remote positions (where candidates from just seven states applied). Despite the effectiveness of these announcements in eliciting applications, the federal government rarely posts remote opportunities. Currently, only 464 of more than 26,500 postings are remote-eligible—less than 1.8 percent.

The popularity of remote listings reflects the population’s interest in such work. In a July 2023 poll, 64 percent of respondents supported fully remote positions (with only 14 percent opposed), with notably higher support among younger respondents—69 percent of millennials compared with 50 percent of baby boomers. Nearly half of the candidates favoring remote work indicated they would change industries, employers, or roles in exchange for remote work, which could help the government attract private sector expertise.

If remote work recruits more talent to the federal workforce, how can the government improve its utilization of remote work?

One way telework and remote work get conflated stems from a structural issue: one individual at each agency—the Telework Managing Officer (TMO)—manages both streams. Disaggregating these streams will improve both the comprehension and utilization of remote work. Mistaking remote work for an extended form of telework has created uncertainty and inconsistency among hiring managers who determine eligibility, and it has caused confusion in collecting accurate data, among other challenges.

To achieve disaggregation and provide clarity, the government could establish agency Digital Opportunity Officers (DOOers) who have a remote work portfolio separate from the telework mandates of the TMOs. Similar to the TMO, the DOOer would be a staffer with direct access to senior agency leadership and either be part of the Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer (OCHCO) or else hold a senior Human Resources position—as long as this position was not that of the TMO. The work of the DOOers could include consulting with the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of Management and Budget, and their departments’ leadership to reform agency remote work policies; partnering with hiring managers to re-evaluate eligibility of vacancies; and liaising with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the National Security Agency (NSA) regarding information security.

Perhaps the main concern with increasing remote work lies in how to handle information security. DHS is already primed to consult on these issues through the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act, which mandated that DHS review information systems security for telework. NSA also has been working to provide new solutions for securely accessing classified information. One such initiative, Commercial Solutions for Classified, layers commercially available products to create new ways to protect classified data. As cybersecurity advances, the DOOers can help their agencies revise eligibility guidelines to make remote work available for more position types when recruiting new human capital.

What can you “DOO” for national security?

Through the DOOers, facilitating the use of remote work as a key recruitment tool opens the door to federal employment to a diverse (and more representative) pool of talented people across the United States. Remote work’s potential to widen the applicant base and improve federal employment’s appeal by comparison with the private sector helps ensure that the government is sourcing the best human capital for U.S. security needs. Prioritizing people power will prepare the United States to remain competitive with other nations and ensure future national security. It’s time to see what the full strength of the country can do for national security.

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  1. The White House, National Cybersecurity Strategy, March 1, 2023, 27, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/National-Cybersecurity-Strategy-2023.pdf; “Strengthening and Empowering the Federal Workforce,” General Services Administration, accessed August 24, 2023, https://www.performance.gov/pma/workforce/; and CHIPS and Science Act, H.R. 4346, 117th Cong. (2022), https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/4346.
  2. Sam Howell, “The United States’ Quantum Talent Shortage Is a National Security Vulnerability, Foreign Policy, July 31, 2023, https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/07/31/us-quantum-technology-china-competition-security/; Office of Management and Budget, Analytical Perspectives: Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2024, chap. 13, “Strengthening the Federal Workforce” (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Publishing Office, March 2023), 141, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/ap_13_strengthening_fy2024.pdf; and “Median Age of the Labor Force, by Sex, Race and Ethnicity,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, updated September 6, 2023, https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/median-age-labor-force.htm.
  3. Mychael Schnell, “House Passes Bill to End Coronavirus-era Telework Policies for Executive Agencies,” The Hill, February 1, 2023, https://thehill.com/homenews/house/3840064-house-passes-bill-to-end-coronavirus-era-telework-policies-for-executive-agencies/; and Kayla Tausche, “White House Asks Cabinet Agencies to ‘Aggressively Execute’ Return to in-Person Work,” CNN, August 4, 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2023/08/04/politics/white-house-cabinet-in-person-work/index.html.
  4. Office of Personnel Management General Oversight: Testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, 118th Cong. (March 9, 2023) (statement of Kiran Ahuja, Director of the Office of Personnel Management), 3, https://oversight.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/OPM-COA-Oversight-Written-Testimony_030923.pdf.
  5. USAJobs, accessed September 22, 2023, https://www.usajobs.gov/; and calculations by author.
  6. Lana Gillespie, “Survey: 89 Percent of American Workforce Prefer 4-Day Workweeks, Remote Work or Hybrid Work,” Bankrate, August 23, 2023, https://www.bankrate.com/personal-finance/hybrid-remote-and-4-day-workweek-survey/#support-for-hybrid.
  7. The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, H.R. 1722, 111th Cong., 2d. sess. (2010), 4, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/BILLS-111hr1722enr/pdf/BILLS-111hr1722enr.pdf.
  8. The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, 3.
  9. “Overview,” National Security Agency, accessed August 24, 2023, https://www.nsa.gov/Resources/Commercial-Solutions-for-Classified-Program/Overview/.