By Steve Kelman

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KSAs and hiring reform in government

There is a nice spirit of innovation coming from John Berry at the Office of Personnel Management regarding ways to improve the federal hiring process. (Full disclosure:  My wife Shelley Metzenbaum's job at the Office of Management and Budget include working on human resources issues from OMB's perspective.)
 
Government Executive reported yesterday that Berry wants to eliminate the knowledge/skills/abilities essays that are currently part of the federal hiring process and create a government-unique "island" in a world where people normally apply for jobs by submitting resumes. In the rest of the world, resumes are used (often they are analyzed automatically using various software packages) to winnow down a group of applicants, and the smaller group then supplies additional information. The KSA system favors insiders already familiar with the special world of government hiring, and it discourages applicants who have many choices from going through a special effort to apply for government jobs, favoring those with fewer choices who are almost by definition weaker candidates.
 
Apparently Berry also wants to seek legislation that simply eliminates the so-called "rule of three," where the agency's personnel system generates a list of three applicants for the actual hiring manager, in favor of a category ranking system that gives the hiring manager more room to choose among applicants.
 
These are good steps, but key questions remain. One key to improved hiring is to get hiring managers themselves more involved in the process, because it is the hiring manager who will actually be using the people who are hired, and the hiring manager is in the best position to inform applicants about the organization they seek to join. This is the key reason, I think, to eliminate the rule of three. But that is a change that needs to be driven by agency leadership, not by OPM (though OPM can and should play a cheerleading role). The insufficient involvement of many hiring managers in the hiring process is an example of problems with the role of supervisors in government.

I am also not sure why Berry seeks legislation to eliminate the rule of three. Second -- and also something that agencies need to work on (with, again, only cheerleading from OPM) -- a great hiring process will count for little if we don't pay attention to the quality of work we offer new hires;  the biggest danger in the new hiring wave is that we will disappoint our new hires and they will quickly leave public service. Finally, on a more technical note, the requirement to use the rule of three was eliminated in legislation several years ago but, weirdly,  hasn't been picked up by many agencies.  Why can't the president simply issue a presidential memorandum to Cabinet secretaries directing them to eliminate the rule of three in their organizations?
 
It was also instructive to read the many reader comments to the Government Executive article. Lots of readers approved the change, but also some dissenting voices -- and support for the status quo -- came from readers identifying themselves as government HR specialists.  It has been my impression that, compared with contracting people, HR specialists in government have been more wedded to the status quo and less customer and mission-oriented;  some of these comments are consistent with that perception. This does not bode well for the internal improvement effort necessary for improving the hiring process.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Mar 18, 2010 at 12:08 PM


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