A makeover job for federal hiring

Those tedious Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSA) essay questions? Gone.

The rule-of-three hiring pool? Kicked to the curb.

The endless wait for a response to job applications, driving would-be federal employees to the point of despair?

One can only hope it suffers a similar fate.

President Barack Obama issued a memo May 11 that directs agencies to do away with those and other cumbersome hiring practices that have made federal employment so hard to come by, even at a time when agencies are under pressure to transition work from government contractors to in-house staff members.

“It's been a long time coming,” wrote Joe Davidson and Ed O'Keefe in the Washington Post. “The Government Accountability Office has been calling for changes since 2001, and a host of outside voices have criticized the byzantine nature of federal hiring, with its stacks of paperwork and endless rounds of interviews that can keep an applicant hanging for months.”

The KSAs perhaps typify the worst aspects of federal hiring. In many cases, all applicants for a job have been required to invest hours writing long, involved essays, even before they knew if they had any chance at the position. That put a practical limit on the number of applications any individual could hope to file.

But no more. Obama has directed agencies to begin accepting good old-fashioned résumés, which ought to provide them with enough information to identify the most competitive applicants.

“For all those interested in making a career in federal service, here’s some exciting news,” wrote the blogger at PSLawNet, which bills itself as the online resource for public-service legal careers, back in March when the rumors began circulating.

“Traditionally, one of the most confusing obstacles on the federal career path has been the highly bureaucratic application process,” the blogger wrote. “In particular, many applicants find the [KSAs] required for many federal positions to be loathsome.”

Wanna-be feds will also be glad to see the end of the rule of three, a practice in which a hiring manager ranks the top three candidates for a job and eliminates everyone else. Unfortunately, it took the federal government 130 years to figure out that it didn’t make sense to shrink the pool so early in the process.

The rule of three “may have worked for 19th-century clerical jobs when a test could clearly show who had the best skills, but it's impossible to apply to the complex jobs of today,” John Palguta, vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, told National Public Radio’s Jennifer Ludden.

But more than anything else, job applicants are hoping for a shorter, more transparent hiring process. They would like to be kept informed of their application's status and be told whether they have been hired or not before they forget they even applied.

Agencies will be required to touch base with applicants about the status of their application “at key stages of the application process,” according to the memo.

Altogether, the overhaul is expected to shorten the hiring process considerably — from four to six months or longer, in some cases, to about 80 days.

“For those of you who aspire to work for the federal government when you separate from the military, that’s great news,” wrote Dan Fazio at the G.I. Jobs Web site. “We’ve all heard the nightmare stories about the application process for a civilian job with the federal government. It’s a byzantine system established in the late 1800s, and it typically takes months to get a response, if applicants get one at all.”

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Reader comments

Fri, Jun 4, 2010 ep_vet

Resume sharing would be a great addition to the recruiter’s tools. The ultimate goal for recruiters is to ensure that the hiring manager has a rich supply of highly qualified candidates. However, once a selection is made, what happens to those other high quality applicants? In the past, there may have been some informal sharing of top candidates between specialists and even some reuse of selection certificates for other vacancies. However, in most cases, resumes and applicant packages were filed in case folders, stored and disposed of according to NARA guidelines. Under the president’s memorandum, that practice will change and OPM will put in place mechanisms for sharing those quality candidates between and among agencies and departments who could then be invited to apply for a suitable agency job.
Also, old resume search technology was based on Boolean expression but a new and better technology became available in 2010. Semantic search, also called contextual search, has an intelligence that enables it to “understand” jargon, acronyms, abbreviations and even misspellings at the same time it associates various words that describe a competency as being equivalent to that competency. Semantic search is straightforward and easy to use and eliminates the need to craft and successively test complex Boolean expressions. Best of all, it greatly increases recruiter productivity.

Fri, Jun 4, 2010 ep_vet

Another weakness that was partially addressed relates to increased manager participation in the hiring process. All hiring processes that follow are heavily dependent on accurate position descriptions and quality job analyses and this assurance begins and ends with the manager.

Step 1 should include greater participation in the hiring process by managers to ensure that these essential artifacts are accurate and suitable to serve as cornerstones of the hiring process.

Step 2 should include a professionally developed and high quality assessment regime that provides suitable differentiation as it identifies potential high performers for selection.

Each and every federal hiring decision is potentially a million dollar investment in the career of a new employee. Recognizing that fact by participation and due diligence will go far in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the hiring process.

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