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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Rewiring Hiring

The civil service got a jolt when the Obama administration declared the federal government must reduce its reliance on private industry to do the important work public employees should do. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are being brought back in house during a time when 40 percent of the workforce is nearing retirement age. In addition, federal jobs are becoming more complex as civil servants tackle policy issues ranging from climate change to financial regulation. New realities require new knowledge and skills.

A year ago, the Office of Personnel Management developed its end-to-end hiring roadmap to funnel more talent into the workforce. But many federal human resources executives lack the experience and, after years of head count reductions and reliance on contractors, the resources to create the unified hiring system mandated in the roadmap. Overwhelmed and understaffed, some HR shops might be tempted to simply automate existing processes. But devising a real solution actually could be easier and much more rewarding. Here are some simple suggestions:

Question the way you recruit and hire. Justify every step in your process. Consider adopting or adapting commercial sector tools and techniques. Government is unique, but there are other complex organizations operating in geographically dispersed, highly regulated environments. Look at these private sector counterparts and borrow processes, practices and procedures liberally.

Base line hiring processes and outcomes. Understanding exactly what is done, why, what works and what doesn't is vital to revamping the system. Next, envision the optimum structure-one that serves both job seekers and hiring managers-and determine the steps to get there. Creating a step-by-step recruiting and hiring process, along with a gap analysis, is crucial to balancing efficiency with effectiveness.

Establish an end-to-end hiring goal to ensure top candidates are not lost to other potential employers. The countdown should begin the day the hiring manager opens the position and end when the new employee settles in to work. Setting an aggressive hiring target forces agencies to reengineer processes rather than automating inefficient ones.

Leverage technology to streamline, link and support each step in the HR process-identifying workforce needs, recruiting, hiring, onboarding and measuring outcomes against objectives. To get the biggest bang for federal dollars, lease technology, don't buy it. Purchasing software as a service provides technology that is up to date, faster to deploy and cheaper to use. Organizations should automate administrative tasks, freeing up HR managers for direct involvement hiring and putting a human face on a bureaucratic process.

Figure out how your target audience communicates and adopt similar tactics. For example, with private sector college recruitment slowing, the federal government has a unique opportunity to woo high-caliber graduates. One of the fastest, least expensive ways to tap pools of prime candidates is through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and similar social media networks. Virtual job fairs also are effective, economical and can extend the reach of federal recruitment efforts.

Create a customer service culture. Top talent is a rare commodity. Applicants have little patience for a cumbersome, uncommunicative hiring process. HR managers should play an active role in the interview process, where their experience asking the right questions can help hiring managers make sound choices.

Let applicants know where they are in the process. Stay in touch to avoid losing them to competitors.

Institutionalize performance metrics and communicate what's working. HR organizations should track common denominators and linkages between performance and hiring practices. Is one recruiting source consistently yielding high-caliber employees? Do top performers share specific prior employment experience?

Gathering data like this and feeding it back into the organization is a way to continually refine hiring processes.

Good HR management is about making intelligent trade-offs between quality and timeliness, people and automation, control and flexibility. Never has there been a more opportune time to replenish and renew the federal workforce. HR leaders have both the mandate and the momentum, and stand to pay a steep price for inaction. If they don't fix the hiring process, agencies will lobby Congress for, and likely get, more direct hiring authority, making the process even more complex.

Glenn Davidson heads the public sector practice for EquaTerra, a consultant to public and private sector organizations seeking to transform their business support functions, including human resources.

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