Why can’t feds hire better, faster?

Merit Systems Protection Board urges agencies to use successive hiring hurdles

Some agencies made significant improvements in their hiring procedures in the past year, but many others still use hiring tools that are not reliable predictors of job performance, according to recent studies conducted by the Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent executive agency created to safeguard merit-based employment. The board is preparing a report on federal hiring for release later this summer.

Structured interviews and probationary hiring periods are better than grade-point average, for example, as predictors of whether someone will be a competent and productive employee, said John Crum, the agency’s deputy director of policy and evaluation. He said agencies with the best hiring practices use successive hurdles to select the most suitable job applicants.

Crum cited the Office of Personnel Management, the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as agencies that had improved their hiring procedures in the past year.

For example, to improve its hiring decisions, CBP developed structured interview procedures by creating standard questions tailored to particular job openings and then set standard procedures to evaluate the responses. “Interviewing is very common, but structured interviewing is much less common and is a much better tool,” Crum said.

Another way that some agencies have used successive hurdles to hire the best candidates is by screening applicants online with a series of sample work questions. OPM used that method about a year ago when it hired a large number of information technology specialists, Crum said.

One of the most underused hiring hurdles is the probationary period, which Crum compared to a job tryout. Agencies can correct hiring mistakes fairly easily during a probationary period that precedes permanent employment, but few federal managers use it effectively when they hire new employees, he said.

Some employment experts say federal agencies have made significant progress in other areas, such as submitting job announcements to the USAJobs Web site in a tab format that is easy to read. “We’ve seen a large transformation in the past year in making job announcements that are accessible to regular folks,” said Dan DeMaioNewton, director of consulting services at Monster Government Solutions and program manager for USAJobs. “You’re not going to see 27-page job announcements anymore.”

Another potential online resource is a federal hiring toolkit that OPM plans to offer federal agencies soon, although the agency has not announced a release date. One component of the five-part toolkit will be a 45-day hiring template that agencies can use to streamline the process.

Employment experts who say the government’s slow-moving hiring procedures drive away the best and brightest job candidates have adopted the mantra “better, faster, cheaper,” a phrase that NASA made popular in the 1990s. “It isn’t just getting somebody in quick,” Crum said. “It’s getting the best possible person as quickly as we can. We have to balance the goals of faster and cheaper with better.”


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