Efforts to Reform Federal Hiring Already Showing Results

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Administration officials said that performing pass-fail interviews earlier in the hiring process led to a faster turnaround, better candidates and more hires from public job announcements.

Officials responsible for two pilot programs aimed at improving the quality and speed of the federal hiring process said a key to improving competitive hiring could be as simple as conducting interviews earlier on.

Stephanie Grosser, a bureaucracy hacker at the U.S. Digital Service, said at a discussion hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration Tuesday that she developed and oversaw two six-month pilot programs hiring IT specialists at the Health and Human Services Department and the National Park Service. Those efforts culminated in last month’s hiring guidance from the Office of Personnel Management, which encouraged more input from subject matter experts and supplemental assessments to determine applicants’ core competencies.

The goal of the pilot programs was simple: improve the list of certified candidates handed over to hiring managers following a job announcement on USA Jobs. Currently, upwards of 50% of positions posted on the federal government’s job board are cancelled without agencies extending a job offer, and increasingly agencies are seeking to use hiring flexibilities that go outside of the competitive hiring process.

“Only 20% of jobs are now being hired through competitive public positions,” Grosser said. “People are finding alternate flexibilities that get around open and fair competition and veterans’ preference, because the basic process of competitive hiring isn’t working. But veterans’ preference matters, and fair and open competition matters because that’s the complete foundation of federal employment.”

When a candidate applies for a position through USA Jobs, he or she must go through two steps. The first is to submit a so-called “federal resume,” a document ranging anywhere from five to 60 pages listing career accomplishments. And the second is a questionnaire where the candidate self-reports on his or her competencies on a scale of 1 to 5.

“The problem is that people who know this process, always put E for Expert on everything, so people who lie get through as ‘Qualified’ and those who are humble and honest often don’t,” Grosser said. “If those are the two steps needed to actually say you’re qualified, it’s really easy for everyone who knows the process to qualify, and then the hiring manager sees so many qualified candidates that they end up saying, ‘I won’t make any selections because all I see are these people who aren’t qualified.' ”

Grosser’s solution was to replace the “federal resume” with a standard two-page resume like those used when applying to jobs in the private sector. Instead of a self-reported questionnaire, officials conducted pass-fail interview examinations to determine applicants' competencies. Resume evaluations and the content of the interviews in the pilot programs are now done in consultation with agency subject matter experts to ensure they align with the actual work for which a candidate would be responsible. This new process is already allowed under current law, she said.

“This idea is not novel or innovative in any way, but if you tell this to someone who works in HR in government, they think it’s against the law and that they’ll get fired,” Grosser said. “[Again], this sounds like common sense, but it’s not being done today.”

At the end of the six-month pilot program, 36 candidates for jobs out of 165 applicants at HHS (or nearly 22%) qualified, and the department hired seven people. At the National Park Service, 11% of 224 applicants were qualified, and the agency hired seven people. An additional six people were “selected” for federal service, Grosser said, and officials are looking to place them in jobs elsewhere in the Interior Department.

“In both processes, federal employees made it through, contractors made it through, people from the private sector, people under 30, women, different racial groups, there were no adverse impacts to any group,” Grosser said. “[The hiring rates] are unheard of for a certificate in the federal government for a job announcement.”

Although the initial process of bringing in subject matter experts to evaluate candidate resumes and develop the structured interviews took 50 to 60 hours over a three-month period, it only has to be done once, with officials updating the interview questions periodically. And the time to hire once the process was complete was significantly shorter.

“Under the normal process, when a manager gets the list of candidates, they take 47 days to make a selection,” Grosser said. “It only took HHS 11 days and [Interior] 17 days to make selections off the certificates because the quality was so much higher.”