Why federal hiring is so hard

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Civil service reform and oiling the talent pipeline were motifs at a Senate hearing that focused on modernizing the federal government. Witnesses told the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that the pitfalls of the government's antiquated hiring processes are apparent in the challenge of bringing cybersecurity experts into the public sector.

Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) made it clear that he is looking outside government for suggested improvements.

"Government doesn't have to go it alone in its struggle to improve efficiency," he said in his opening statement. "There are private groups who have made it their mission to advise and help government agencies on how they can improve efficiency and spend taxpayer money more wisely."

Tom Lee, director of the Sunlight Foundation's Sunlight Labs, said experiments such as the Presidential Innovation Fellows program show that government must resort to "unusual hiring vehicles that step outside of the normal processes for bringing people in because it's simply too onerous to get high-quality technical talent."

In addition, the current system cannot gauge technological talent because of the lack of certification for IT skills, he said. "You have to look [at] the person's body of work," Lee said. "You can't go get a certificate from Oracle."

Shelley Metzenbaum, president of the Volcker Alliance, said the federal government must start recruiting at a macro level rather than having isolated agency-by-agency hiring processes.

"Why not allow for some specialization and then let one agency do all the recruitment?" Metzenbaum asked. For instance, if the Defense Department identifies 10 people worthy of their recruitment effort for only five vacancies, it should be able to steer the unhired recruits to another federal agency.

Robert Johnston Shea, former associate director for administration and government performance at the Office of Management and Budget, said the major hurdles facing the federal workforce won't go away without reforms to the civil service.

Surveys show that government executives cannot "recruit or maintain the people they need to accomplish their mission," said Shea, who is now a principal at Grant Thornton. "Unless we get comprehensive civil service reform, I don't think that challenge will be diminished in the near future."

Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, said reducing the number of Senate-confirmed appointees is essential to increasing accountability and ensuring sufficient competence among senior executives.

"You're not going to see substantial change in any organization when you don't have long-term leadership that can be held accountable for the changes that need to take place," Stier said. He attributed the effective management of the Government Accountability Office, for example, to the fact that the comptroller has a 15-year tenure.

About the Author

Reid Davenport is an FCW editorial fellow. Connect with him on Twitter: @ReidDavenport.


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