By Steve Kelman

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Another depressing story about federal hiring

steve kelman

Reporter Lisa Rein had a long story in the Dec. 16 Washington Post about the government's problems recruiting and retaining millennials for the government.

Much of the article repeated facts that are familiar to those following this issue: The slow and kludge-y hiring process; form letters turning applicants down six months after sending an application; frustrations over budget crises; and widespread dissing of civil servants.

Some of the statistics in the article (as is often the case with journalism) could have profited from a research-influenced check. Rein, for example, notes that 9 percent of those leaving government last year were under 30 -- I would want to know whether the tendency of young employees to leave is rising and how it compares with D.C.-based private organizations, since new employees always leave in much-larger numbers than old ones. (If I really wanted to see whether young employees are disproportionately dissatisfied with their government jobs, I'd want also to compare these numbers with turnover at large defense contractors, consulting firms and other private-sector employers that "live" in the federal world.)

There are, though, a number of observations in the article that have not gotten so much attention, and that bear repetition and re-emphasis. To me, by far the most important was the observation by Lisa Danzig, associate director for personnel and performance at OMB, that "too many in government's senior ranks believe that recruiting young talent is a task for human resources."

"Many government leaders don't see it as their job to bring in new employees," Danzig is quoted as saying. This is true, unfortunately, and nothing short of shocking and amazing, especially given the compliance- and regulation-focused culture of government "personnelists" (AKA human resources folks), who too often have little orientation toward program mission accomplishment. Much of the government resembles a professional services or consulting firm in what it needs to do a good job. Executives at such firms are constantly preaching that talented, motivated people are a prerequisite to organizational success. In many consulting firms, the head of an office or sometimes even the CEO becomes personally involved in new-hire decisions.

I find it hard to imagine that a manager who doesn't care who is hired can care about doing a good job in general. Let me present an extreme view for shock value: Any government manager who doesn't realize they need to be crucially involved in hiring decisions does not understand the requirements of a managerial job, and should be removed from their position. Interviewing and hiring skills should be part of training any new government manager.

The Post article also discusses the very slow take-up in government of the Pathways program, which allows agencies to directly hire people for permanent positions after they have done an internship while in school. As the article notes, only a tiny number of interns have been hired under this program, which is probably the fault of previous, restrictive interpretations, and myths about what the government is allowed to do. Recently, the Partnership for Public Service and the Volcker Alliance issued a mythbusting report about the Pathways program, which I blogged about at the time. This should become a major tool the government can use to hire young people.

The article discusses, though not thoroughly enough, the problem of retaining employees who actually get hired. To be sure, with the shift among young people away from the idea that people want to work the same place over a lifetime, turnover will inevitably increase. Nonetheless, the more bureaucratic and boring, the less results-oriented government jobs are, the less-attractive they will be. This is a huge problem, but if the situation is going improve, this needs to be done mostly a retail level, one manager at a time.

The good news is that improving this situation lies in relatively large measure with the behavior of the individual manager. Organization-level decisions can help, though: The article cites an example from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where a group of workers with the agency for less than five years, calling itself "Under 5," won backing for a program in which employees with innovative ideas are given four hours a week to work on them. Other agencies, take note!

Posted by Steve Kelman on Dec 16, 2014 at 1:16 PM


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