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.


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