A new agenda

Kay Coles James was the star of the Bush administration's management reform team

Kay Coles James' recent departure as director of the Office of Personnel Management is a sad loss. James was a star of the Bush administration's management reform team. She mixed a strong devotion to modernizing an overly bureaucratized human resources management system with a genuine concern for career civil servants that unfortunately has been too rare among political appointees in this administration.

As officials hire new employees to fill the government's depleted ranks, they also must reform an outmoded system that makes it difficult to attract young, talented people to public service. James had the right agenda, but progress has been disappointingly slow. The main task for her successor will be implementing the directions she set out.

In the hiring area, the priorities are:

1. Get senior managers involved in hiring. During a series of meetings at Harvard University on the government's workforce crisis, I was amazed to learn that the chief executive officer of one consulting firm spends about 10 percent of his time on entry-level hiring, including interviewing job candidates. Yet in the federal government, with the exception of David Walker, comptroller general and head of the Government Accountability Office, I suspect almost no senior executives, career or political, spend any personal time on entry-level hiring.

2. Do something about job ads. Nudged by her father, who would like her to do a stint as a civil servant, my older daughter, who's graduating from college, checked out the Office of Personnel Management's jobs site, www.usajobs.com. She told me it was almost impossible to understand most of the job descriptions.

Although there are exceptions, most agencies still churn out ads written in bureaucratese, devoid of any effort to inspire young people to sign up and make a difference. A good first step: Stop calling these "vacancy announcements," as if officials were trying to rent out motel rooms.

3. Speed hiring decisions. It has been repeatedly noted that agencies that wait several months to make hiring decisions will lose attractive candidates to private-sector employers who hire much faster. Some agencies have made significant progress in this area, but agency officials also need to get people onboard doing nonsensitive work while waiting for security clearances, rather than keeping them waiting without a paycheck.

4. Get rid of techniques for making hiring decisions that have proven to be poor predictors. In a recent report, Partnership for Public Service analysts concluded that in making hiring decisions, government officials put the most weight on formulaic information about a person's years of experience and education. Hiring should be based on techniques with greater predictive power, such as answers to structured job interviews in which all applicants receive the same questions or tests for simulated on-the-job experiences. Agency officials should be willing to judge applicants' commitment to public service and the quality of their past experience rather than the quantity.

Kelman is a professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Shutterstock image: looking for code.

    How DOD embraced bug bounties -- and how your agency can, too

    Hack the Pentagon proved to Defense Department officials that outside hackers can be assets, not adversaries.

  • Shutterstock image: cyber defense.

    Why PPD-41 is evolutionary, not revolutionary

    Government cybersecurity officials say the presidential policy directive codifies cyber incident response protocols but doesn't radically change what's been in practice in recent years.

  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group