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What the President’s 2021 Budget Means for Feds

The president’s budget proposal for fiscal 2021 is out, and there’s plenty in it that could directly affect employees — from changes in federal hiring and firing practices to new models for compensating employees and preparing them for greater use of automation and artificial intelligence (AI).

To help you understand what proposed changes could impact you, we’ve specifically outlined a mix of management and technology issues, ranging from the modest 1% federal pay raise in calendar year 2021  to boosts in cybersecurity spending and investments in emerging technology. These tech capabilities are poised to change how employees work and what their roles are in the workforce.

“Agencies continue to examine their workforces to determine the functions needed to accomplish their missions in light of technological changes that automate transactional processes, such as artificial intelligence to streamline compliance and regulatory processes, online and telephone chat-bots to improve customer service, and other tools to reduce agency personnel needs,” according to the budget proposal. “Several agencies are already using shared-service models for mission-support positions, which may also reduce the need for full-time employees.”

Although Congress will draft its own version of the budget, it’s worth noting what the administration’s budget is prioritizing and how officials would like to go about executing those plans. For example, the Trump administration is still pushing to merge the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the General Services Administration (GSA), despite Congress passing a provision in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to block the merger. The law calls for the National Academy of Public Administration, a congressionally-chartered nonprofit, to conduct a comprehensive study on OPM’s challenges and provide recommendations for how to address them. OPM and GSA submitted a shared budget for fiscal 2021.

“In no [way], shape or form will we be bucking the spirit or mechanics of what was included in the NDAA language about the study associated with OPM and GSA,” Margaret Weichert, Deputy Director for Management at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), told reporters Monday. “We are actually very confident that the study will show what we already know.”

Overall, the budget proposes double-digit cuts for several civilian agencies, particularly the Environmental Protection Agency and Commerce and Housing and Urban Development departments. According to Commerce budget documents, the steep cuts are credited to the expected wind-down of the decennial census. NASA and the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments are among those that would see spending increases.

In many ways, the administration sees this budget proposal as a continuation of existing efforts of a four-year tenure, including focuses to increase employee payments to the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), increase performance-based pay for workers in mission-critical areas and accelerate the adoption of AI and robotic process automation (RPA) across the workforce.

Below we’ve highlighted key proposals you should know about in the president’s 2021 proposed budget and what they could mean for you:

Emerging Technologies

RPA/AI initiatives: Over the past four years, the government’s 24 largest agencies have implemented more than 100 initiatives to reduce administrative burden and shift “hundreds of thousands of Full-Time Equivalent employee hours to higher-value work.” These initiatives include more than 50 initiatives focused on process improvement and standardization; approximately 30 initiatives using robotic process automation, artificial intelligence, and/or other innovative software; and nearly 20 initiatives focused on the digitization of agency processes. Employees should expect to see these types of initiatives expand across government, particularly in finance and acquisition departments. (Check out this short GovLoop explainer on RPA)

RPA reskilling: OPM is partnering with agencies to develop a Federal Robotic Process Automation Reskilling Academy to train and mentor federal employees whose jobs are affected by RPA. Weichert said the administration is committed to reskilling up to 400,000 federal workers. The primary focus is on reskilling employees for hard-to-fill roles and to prepare employees to shift to digital and data-driven jobs aligned with a 21st century workforce.


Revamp civilian leave system: The budget proposes transitioning the existing civilian leave system to a model used in the private sector, where employee leave is combined into one paid time off category. The total number of leave days would be reduced under the proposal, which would add a short term disability insurance policy for federal employees.

Eliminate certain degree requirements: The administration intends to eliminate degree requirements for federal jobs when not inherently necessary to perform the duties of a position. It also seeks to identify other instances where degrees are used as a poor proxy for specific competencies sought in job candidates. The budget acknowledges that an over-reliance on degrees can be a barrier to entry into the federal government, but it does not specify which jobs would be impacted.

Pay raise: The budget includes a modest 1% pay increase for federal civilian employees for calendar year 2021. It would also increase funds available for on-the-spot and ratings-based performance awards, which could reach up to a 3.5% pool for agencies to draw from for pay raises. The president’s request calls for a slowdown on the frequency of tenure-based, step-increase promotions that most federal employees get on a fixed, periodic schedule.


New Commerce Department office: The budget supports the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, which among other things required agencies to appoint chief data officers, and the Federal Data Strategy by funding a U.S. Federal Data Service within the Commerce Department.

Develop data science workforce: As the government looks to expand its AI and machine learning capabilities, the administration is simultaneously seeking to bolster the data science workforce to support those efforts. Not only does the budget call for staff who understand these technologies and how they work, but it also highlights a need for cross-functional data scientists who can work in areas such as financial management, acquisition and privacy protections.

Customer Experience

USAJobs user enhancements: By the end of fiscal 2020, OPM is expected to add new features to the government’s flagship jobs website, USAJobs, to improve customer experience.  The first project includes developing a tool that makes it easier for veterans to understand their veterans’ preference eligibility and also minimizes the workload for HR specialists to decide eligibility for every application. The second project will improve hiring transparency by adding job status to the user experience. The job status notice will appear on the job announcement, as well as in the applicant’s dashboard to track progress. USAJobs will also incorporate the number of total users who applied to the job in the tab to provide context on the level of interest in the position.

Improve retirement services: The administration’s joint budget for OPM and GSA includes a strategic goal to improve retirement services by reducing the average time to answer calls to five minutes or less and achieve an average case processing time of 60 days or less. Tactics include cross-training Retirement Information Office personnel to increase the number of customer requests resolved during the first call. Retirement Services will also investigate technological capabilities to improve processing time and reduce wait times. Recently, OPM has been dealing with a backlog of retirement forms.

Login.gov growth: The federal government’s authentication and identity verification platform Login.gov expects to see at least a 90% renewal rate in fiscal 2020 and 2021 across the agencies it serves. Login.gov simplifies secure access to online federal services for the public while reducing costs for taxpayers and agencies. Login.gov currently serves more than 41 agency applications in production with more than 19 million registered users, as of December 2019. The platform is projected to see a 50% or higher growth rate in users.


Cyber reskilling: In 2021, the administration said it will build on efforts to grow the federal cybersecurity workforce through reskilling. The 2021 budget invests in training personnel for cybersecurity aptitude to fill critical roles. What isn’t clear, though, is how the administration will address the current challenge of employees being unable to secure cybersecurity jobs and do so at their current pay grades.

DHS Talent Management: The budget includes funding to support the Homeland Security Department’s (DHS) Cyber Talent Management System, which reflects the exemption of DHS’s cyber workforce from many of the hiring and compensation requirements and restrictions in existing law under title 5 of the United States Code. This cybersecurity-focused personnel system gives DHS the ability to implement various talent management changes, including alternative methods for defining jobs, conducting hiring and compensating employees.

CISA cyber workforce programs: The budget also includes additional funding for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to lead a governmentwide cybersecurity workforce program for all federal cyber professionals. The program includes an interagency cyber rotational program, a cybersecurity training program for federal cyber professionals and a cyber reskilling academy.

Pearl Kim, Isaac Constans, Mark Hensch and John Monroe contributed to this report. 

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