First Impressions

How the Web has changed recruiting for government jobs.

The government workforce is aging, and large numbers are starting to retire. Prospective labor shortages in critical fields are forcing agencies to increase recruitment efforts. But the market for recruits has never been more competitive, and government employers are locked in a fierce contest with the private sector.

Recruits look different than they did 10 or 20 years ago, due in no small part to the Internet. Today's job seekers are Web-savvy, conducting much of their employment searching online.

Private companies attract them by investing in compelling and informative Web pages, and for-profit recruiting sites pour money into Web development and maintenance. Given limited resources, government agencies must get smarter in the race for these bright minds. The private sector can offer recruits great financial incentives-competitive salaries, bonuses and other perks-but government has its share of incentives, including relocation assistance, student loan forgiveness and retention bonuses. By sharpening their online tools, agencies can capitalize on people's desire to serve and their identification with an agency's mission.

Know Your Customers

Potential recruits judge job opportunities on more than just the application process. They are influenced by the Web site of the recruiting agency. Government must engage the job seeker at every click of the mouse, from home page to career page. Straightforward navigation, focused search results and strong content about job opportunities, the agency and its mission are essential to attracting top talent. A bad experience with a Web site minimizes the chance a job seeker will become engaged and apply for a position.

The private sector continues to outperform the government on the Web, according to the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index. In the first quarter 2007 survey, citizen satisfaction with government sites declined 0.7 percent from last quarter to an aggregate score of 73.4 out of 100. Meanwhile, private sector e-commerce and e-business scored 80 and 76.5, respectively.

Whether a Web site is devoted specifically to recruitment or is a general agency site with a career section, users must be able to accomplish what they set out to do. This can be particularly challenging for government sites, which can encompass hundreds of pages, because job seekers' impressions are not limited to job pages. While government sites must appeal to many different interests, they cannot be all things to all people. Agencies must understand what makes their target audience tick.

Measuring the satisfaction of job seekers can provide the most bang for an agency's buck. It is the best way to learn what prospects need and want. Pop-up surveys, such as those used by ACSI, can be particularly effective in capturing information about the purpose of a site visit, helping agencies identify job seekers and gauging satisfaction. The government can learn a lot from its customers.

Some elements of the Web experience have more impact on satisfaction than others, and surveying users can help agencies determine where to focus their attention. More than 150 government sites use customer satisfaction research to optimize resources, many with impressive results. The Internal Revenue Service, for example, relaunched its Web site in November 2005 after a redesign driven by customer feedback. Based on survey data, added a "most requested forms" section, new pull-down menus and more intuitive navigation. The result was a 7 percent increase in customer satisfaction, just in time for tax season.

In 2003, the Office of Personnel Management redesigned, the main portal into federal employment listings. It used customer satisfaction data to track recommendations for enhancements, like replacing long announcements with seeker-friendly, tabbed display notices with concise summaries of job requirements. Online applications via the Web site went from less than 500,000 in 2003 to nearly 5 million in 2006.

Across business, we see that satisfaction drives success, and every government agency can benefit from beefing up their online recruiting by listening to the needs of job seekers. An investment in customer satisfaction is an investment in the future of the workforce.

Larry Freed is president and chief executive officer of ForeSee Results, a customer satisfaction measurement and management firm in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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