Feds search for a fair hiring process

In 1996, the Office of Personnel Management delegated to federal agenciesthe authority to examine job applicants. This decentralization of examiningauthority reflected a desire within the Clinton administration and Congressto make the process for hiring new employees faster and less bureaucratic.Today, about 650 delegated examining units (DEU) exercise this authoritywithin government departments and agencies.

The DEUs recruit for vacant positions, review the qualifications ofjob applicants and rank and refer candidates to hiring officials for consideration.The Merit Systems Protection Board recently reviewed this operation.

An MSPB report issued in August, "The Role of Delegated Examining Units:Hiring New Employees in a Decentralized Civil Service," said the federalgovernment hired more than 60,000 full-time permanent employees in fiscal1998. Virtually all the new hires were brought on board by individual agenciesexercising their delegated examining authority, the report said.

In exercising delegated examining authority, DEUs perform two essentialtasks. They post vacant positions, frequently through newspaper advertisementsand usually through the Internet. Consequently, applicants with Internetaccess anywhere in the country can log on to www.usajobs.opm.gov and findpostings for federal job opportunities.

That's a great leap forward. It used to be difficult to learn of governmentjob openings because OPM did not run a centralized vacancy posting service.The private sector jumped into the breach and made this information available— at a price. A U.S. citizen should not have to pay to find out about U.S.government job vacancies. Thank goodness that has changed.

The other critical task of DEUs is to evaluate applicants and identifythe candidates that will be referred to selecting officials for employmentconsideration. Essentially, DEUs use two assessment methods: written testsand a process known as "unassembled examination." In unassembled examinations,agency personnel — usually people familiar with the requirements of thejob to be filled — give applicants numerical scores by rating their educationand experience against the evaluation criteria for the position. The managerfor the vacancy usually determines the evaluation criteria.

Unassembled examinations were used to assess about 60 percent of thenew hires selected in the MSPB's sample. Although unassembled examinationsare less bureaucratic in my judgment, they are prone to a high degree ofsubjectivity. This is particularly true when there are many job applicantsto screen.

A rating or evaluation panel typically is formed by the office withthe vacancy in conjunction with the agency's personnel department. Subjectmatter experts meet to review job applicants against the evaluation criteriaestablished by the selecting official. For example, if one of the evaluationfactors is "ability to communicate effectively," the panel is given a ratingscale on which to score applicants.

From my personal experience, trying to decide whether applicants getthree, four or five points for their ability to communicate effectivelyis a very subjective process. A panel member has to rely on job applicants'resumes to make such a judgment. That's not easy to do.

It's not so much that the criteria are not objective, it's that themethod for evaluating qualifications is limited. Ideally, if it were importantfor applicants to demonstrate their ability to communicate, you would askthem to come in for an interview or submit samples of written communications.But most often, that is not feasible or possible, so you have to pore througha resume or job application looking for key words that indicate communicationskills.

In addition, what's to prevent applicants from embellishing their resumeor application? You can get in trouble for lying on a job application. Butembellishing? No way.

Also, if a panel must screen 50 applicants, you can bet that by thetime they get to the 25th applicant, the panel members are bleary and theirdecisions become less accurate with each application they review. All ofthis means that the process of evaluating candidates for government jobsis not as objective and fair as it appears.

When the MSPB conducted interviews with the heads of 70 DEUs chosenat random, it found that those individuals generally believe delegated examininghas eliminated the major difficulties associated with centralized hiring.The difficulties centered on the length of time it took to get candidatescertified by OPM and the poor quality or unavailability of those candidates.

With delegated examining authority, agencies can produce certificatesfaster than OPM could. Further, agencies said that by doing their own examining,they can identify and refer better candidates to the selecting officials.Nearly 80 percent of those interviewed said that delegated examining isfaster and more effective than centralized hiring. That is no surprise.OPM is as slow as molasses, so delegating examining authority to agencieswas bound to speed things up.

But agency officials also told the MSPB that they believe unassembledexaminations frequently fail to place the best-qualified candidates on DEUcertificates, and that this isunfair to the candidates and to the managers for whom the certificates areprepared. This is consistent with my experience, but I am surprised thatagency officials confessed to this fact.

The MSPB said several steps should be taken to make delegated examiningwork better and improve the process for hiring new employees. A major recommendationwas to devise more written examinations for job applicants. Is that a goodidea? Perhaps in theory, but who is going to devise these tests? Where arethe resources to do that going to come from? In today's lean-and-mean environment,this sounds like a pie-in-the-sky recommendation.

Is there a way to ensure that only the best-qualified candidates arehired by the federal government? I doubt it. One possible answer would beto look at how the private sector deals with this issue. But if privatecompanies have had more success with this issue, it would come as a surpriseto me.

Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who contributes regularly toFederal Computer Week.

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