“Fed” Up? The challenge of improving U.S. Federal recruiting & hiring

The Hard Work of Improving the U.S. Federal Recruiting and Hiring Process

Bruce A. Waltuck

(Excerpts of an article yet to be published)

In a recent report, the Partnership for Public Service, and Grant Thornton, LLC, describe ways to improve the U.S. Federal recruiting and hiring system.  As a now former-Fed, unceremoniously cut from an at-will senior position barely a year after the visionary leader who hired me was dispatched overseas, I have spent hundreds of hours poring over Federal vacancy listings on the often-maligned usajobs.gov web site.  My experience may have been unique over the past year of unemployment, but I doubt it. 

There are many indications of well-known and sadly long-standing problems in the Federal government’s recruiting and hiring system.  Recent mandates by the President, supported by the work of Office of Personnel (OPM) Director John Berry, provide some impetus for improvement.  But the problems are many, and often complex.  As in any large organization, change from the long-standing status quo does not come easily, or quickly.  Benchmark best practices may be known, but not able to be implemented in our own system.

There are several key components to the issue:

1) what do hiring agencies need?  It seems easy enough- the best-qualified candidates for a given job, and a way to distinguish among them.  Easier said, than done. 

2) vacancy announcements that sufficiently explain the duties of a job.  Again, somewhat easier said than done.   So the vacancies begin with references to the core knowledge, skills, and abilities of a given job code, and allow the crafting of more specific language for the given vacancy.  So far, so good.

3) an application process that is at once easy to follow and complete, and at the same time, a process which provides the agency sufficient information to make an initial assessment of qualification.  It’s easy to understand why agencies want as much detailed information as they can get in an initial submission.    On average, a single application over the past 14 months, took me an average of 2 1/2 hours to complete.  The shortest was a “rush job” done in about an hour.  The longest took four hours and ten minutes!

>DISCONNECT ALERT:  Wait, you say- can’t you just “copy and paste” your answers from previous applications?  After all, haven’t you just lived one life, and had one career (even if it has had various jobs).  Well yes- and no.   So your labor-management relations experience for fifteen years needs to be framed in one way if you are applying to be a management-side HR Specialist in the Defense Department, and framed in a very different way when you are applying to be an Alternative Dispute Resolution Mediator (and yes, these are actual examples from my past year’s experience).     

What is the problem?  With regard to notifying the non-selectee, the answer is found in a single word- fear.  Agencies, their HR experts, and their legal counsel, caution against too much communication with the non-selectee.  Like some personnel-Miranda warning, they feel that “anything you tell them can and might be used against you.”  Will some applicants pursue complaints or even litigation?  I suppose so.  But in my experience, the real fear of talking to a non-selectee runs much deeper.  I am only a sample size of one in my survey here, but I know the things I ask when I am told I did not get the job.  I have drawn my inspiration in this from the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz- “what’ve they got that I ain’t got?”  More politely, I have come to ask what knowledge, skills, or experience, were distinguishing factors in the selection decision?  I am clear in saying that I need to know this in order to decide whether I have a chance at similar jobs in the future, and also, if there are things I can do to build my skills and experience, and thereby improve my chances.  Who wouldn’t want to know that?  But on the flip side, that is often a very difficult conversation for an agency staffer to have with a rejected applicant. 

3a) More on making applications easier to complete:  Last year I had the pleasure of seeing OPM Director John Berry twice at conferences.  Both times, Mr. Berry’s message was the same:  “the Federal government needs to hire the way private industry does- take a two-page resume and a cover letter.  That’s it.”  Recently, the President’s challenge/mandate to improve Federal recruiting and hiring, has driven the implementation of some of Mr. Berry’s ideas.  The lengthy essays have been banished.  So yes, my average time to complete a Federal job application has dropped considerably.  I recently completed two – including the highest-ranked position I have ever applied for – in under 25 minutes.  To complete BOTH. 

4) Time to fill a job:  Once again drawing on my massive survey of me, it looks like the average time to make a hiring decision is at least 120 days.  If everyone agrees on the need to reduce this time, what are the barriers to improvement?  Two problems immediately come to mind- the need to make well-informed decisions, and the capacity of hiring staff relative to the workload.  In a process in which dozens of applicants are submitting voluminous essays, how long does it take for the HR and agency staffs to read everything?  Then make a detailed analysis and decide which of the applicants is on the short-list?  Moreover, in a time when more people are out of work and applying for these jobs, how much greater is the workload, relative to the staff’s capacity?  Streamlining the application process can go a long way to reducing this burden, and towards a significant improvement in time-to-hire.

What to do?  There continue to be problems and disconnects in the Federal recruiting system.   It’s a terrible time to be out of work, and uniquely challenging for many of our youngest and oldest members of the workforce.  For the member of my survey-of-one, namely me, the road to another Federal job has been bumpy and frustrating at best.  Good luck, Mr. Berry.  By the way, if you have any openings for an experienced government process improvement leader, with knowledge of the recruiting and hiring process, please call.  I’m available.

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