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Brain Drain in Our Government Agencies

As long ago as 1981 the federal government was concerned with the loss of knowledge -'brain drain' - from various agencies. A GAO report "The Government Brain Drain" dated Sep 14, 1981 notes "The Government brain drain caused by inadequate salary levels, irregular pay adjustments, and distorted pay interrelationships of top Federal officials is one of the most critical but perhaps least understood and appreciated problems facing Government today". Commenting on the crisis, Emily Jarvis (2015) wrote "The fact is, the government brain drain challenge is real. It’s crucial that employees both within and outside the government understand the challenge and work together to find solutions."

That problem has persisted over the decades and is now of particular concern with regard to the IT crisis the US government now faces. Kushto (2016) writes "As government leaders increasingly prioritize cyberspace's role in national security, a critical deficiency has begun to reveal itself: The best and brightest IT security professionals all too frequently migrate to the presumably greener -- or at least more equitable -- pastures of the private sector". King (2016) also notes this growing trend of IT personnel leaving government employ and writes "The past few years there have been numerous senior U.S. government officials in the national security and cyber space depart for opportunities within the private sector".

The exodus from government service by skilled IT professionals, combined with the growing number of IT positions that remain unfilled is a very pressing issue for our national security agencies. 'Knowledge management' needs to be addressed. Former NSA Director Keith Alexander is quoted by Bing (2016) as saying "I do hear that people are increasingly leaving in large numbers and it is a combination of things that start with [morale] and there’s now much more money on the outside".

Finances are the big lure in getting skilled professionals to leave their agencies for the private sector, and with salaries that are multiples of what their GS rating were it is no wonder so many are leaving. Patriotism works wonders for keeping some people in government employ, but waving the flag in the face of professionals can only do so much. This is especially true with huge paychecks being waved by private organizations who are desperate for those skills.

As decades of 'brain drain' have proven, there is no simple solution to the problem. However there are some measures that can be attempted to stem the flow to the private sector. First is a retooling of the pay structure within the government that gives special consideration to those with technological skills. Second, the government should offer to 'excuse' student loans for those willing to sign a long term contract with their agencies. Another option would be cooperation. Since both private organizations and government agencies are in need of the talents of these skilled professionals, some arrangement should be made that shares these talents so that both may benefit.

Morale is another concern within our security agencies. Recent disclosures have given, rightly or wrongly, negative impressions of those agencies. Efforts need to be made to re-instill public confidence in our security agencies and pump up their morale by developing an 'esprit de corps' that overcomes issues that deflate agency morale. If all else fails, perhaps we as a nation should turn up the lights on the star spangled banner in the hopes that patriotism still flourishes in the hearts of the people that we need the most in fighting our cyber wars.


Bing C. (2016) NSA's best are leaving in big numbers insider say. Retrieved from the Internet at:

GAO Report Sept. 14, 1981 Retrieved from the Internet at:

Javis, E. (2015). Future of government hiring: Dealing with the government’s brain drain. Retrieved from the Internet at:

King, J. (2016). National security brain drain. Retrieved from the Internet at:

Kushto, G. (2016). Stopping the federal IT security brain drain. Retrieved from the Internet at:

About the Author - Dr. Jane LeClair is the President of the Washington Center for Cybersecurity Research & Development and was previously the COO of the National Cybersecurity Institute in Washington, DC. Her latest book "Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Protection" was published in 2016.

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