Cutting red tape for job applicants and involving managers in the hunt for mission-critical skills could be more complex than meets the eye.
In May, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry and Jeffrey Zients, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, stood before a crowd of human resources managers and unveiled their federal hiring reform plan.
A number of agency officials made speeches in support of President Obama's memo outlining new personnel procedures and gathered around the antique desk of civil service reform advocate Theodore Roosevelt to sign the document.
When Berry said, "Now, for the first time in history, you will be able to apply for almost every federal job with a simple resume and a cover letter," the audience erupted in applause.
The announcement seemed like the culmination of a long process, the end of the road. But for OPM and HR employees, it is just the beginning. As it stands, the hiring process is a tremendous burden both for agencies and applicants. Hiring someone takes an average of five months in government, and as Berry noted, it can involve as many as 40 steps and 19 signatures. Applicants complain they must develop unique and lengthy essays for each federal job they apply for, and then they never receive a response as their applications disappear into the black hole of the process.
In addition to transitioning from the knowledge, skills and abilities essays that have been the cornerstone of the federal application process, agencies must phase out the "rule of three"-in which managers choose hires from the top three applicants-to a category rating system. Applicants deemed best qualified will be kept in a pool of potential hires even if officials select another candidate for the vacancy posted. HR offices now will be required to keep the thousands of applicants for federal jobs updated on where they stand along the way.
Hiring managers are being instructed to get more involved in the process, to participate in planning current and future workforce requirements, identifying the skills required for specific jobs, and actively engaging in recruitment and interviews.
These changes are significant; they mark a major culture shift for human resources offices and for program and project managers, many of whom formerly were hands-off during the hiring process. And OPM and OMB are not allowing agencies to make the transition at a glacial pace. On Nov. 1, officials must start providing OPM and OMB with timelines and targets to improve hiring quality and speed.
Agencies will be required to fill mission-critical and other high-priority positions faster, measure progress of reforms, analyze the causes of problems and identify remedial actions, and train managers in effective recruitment and hiring practices, Berry said. OPM will establish a governmentwide performance review and improvement process for the reform effort, to include a timeline, benchmarks and indicators of progress, as well as a data-driven system to hold agencies accountable for improving the speed and quality of hiring, achieving targets, and satisfying merit system principles and veterans preference requirements.
New York University public service professor Paul Light notes this is hardly the first time OPM, the White House and agencies have attempted to improve federal hiring. "Over the last 20 years there have been repeated pressures to accelerate the process," Light says. Even this administration has attempted once before to get the ball rolling on hiring reform. "John Berry and [outgoing OMB Director] Peter Orszag working together made it clear they wanted acceleration last year, and they got pretty much a minuscule response from the agencies, so they escalated this so it's a presidential order," Light says
. "So this is actually the second time they've made an effort to accelerate the hiring process and make it more transparent and recruit-friendly." But like other major attempts at reforms, hiring improvements run up against a long-standing and deeply ingrained bureaucracy. Jon Desenberg, senior policy director at the Performance Institute, a think tank devoted to government workforce issues, says just walking through federal human resource departments gives one a sense of the type of cultural resistance the White House and OPM will face.
"Sometimes you still see people with the HR guidebooks or manuals on how to do things that were thrown out during the Al Gore reinvention of government," Desenberg says. "You have old staff and they liked it, they knew it, they understood it. Al Gore may have tried to throw it out but they say, 'Gosh darn it, we're going to still use it if we can.' "
Agencies also will run up against the challenge of marrying a common-sense resume-based system with current automated processes. "There's a dirty little secret about this resume business," Desenberg says. "People at the agencies would tell their friends and family that even if they just ask for a resume, you must redo your resume to echo the position description, literally sometimes word for word. The sense that 'Oh, I can just hand in my resume,' that is not at all the reality."
Desenberg says automated resume screeners are looking for key words from the job announcement and resumes without those words are likely to get thrown out early in the process. "You may have gotten away from some of the mechanical cranking out of essays, but you're still requiring people to mold whatever they send in around the position description," he says.
According to Light, the sheer variety of resume styles and information will create a major challenge for agencies, and he wouldn't be surprised to see further guidance on resume formatting and content. "Resumes are going to be easy and make the students, the recruits happier, but then the personnel office is going to have to figure out a way to score it," he says. "You now have to translate very different resume styles into some sort of a meaningful system so you can provide the weights for veterans' service and so forth. So you're going to get a de facto KSA or something like it."
Desenberg and Light agree that with the weight of the White House and coordination of OPM and OMB behind it, this effort has a decent chance of making headway. Desenberg calls Berry "one of the stronger if not the strongest head of OPM we've had in years," and says he has never seen such a close partnership between OPM and OMB.
"But we're relying on the agencies to get out of their old habits; that's going to be difficult but not impossible," Light says. "I admire what OPM and OMB are trying to do. I especially admire the fact that OMB is involved because they carry a heavy bat, and Orszag is the most engaged OMB director in management in decades. So they may have a fighting chance here, and you do have a presidential order on this, so I'd rate the odds better than normal but I'd still say it's a long shot."
Kathryn Medina, executive director of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, acknowledges that ingrained behavior is one of the primary hurdles agencies will face. "This memo is going to spark a much-needed culture shift with respect to the hiring managers needing to be more involved in the hiring process," Medina says. The CHCOs are very supportive and happy to have that as part of the reform, she says, but they are aware it's an area where each agency is unique and OPM can provide only so much guidance.
OPM is equipped to better handle another big challenge: training. Medina says HR officials and hiring managers will need guidance on how to implement the provisions in the president's memo, and OPM has made itself available to help. The agency offers mobile assistance teams, Web-based support and individual instruction, and Medina says OPM is encouraging CHCOs to come forward and ask for help. "In the last CHCO Council meeting, Director Berry said, 'You tell us where we need to go . . . keep that dialogue going with us, and we'll make sure you get what you need,' " she says.
Quality vs. Quantity
Observers note that while the emphasis is on accelerating the hiring process, administration leaders want to be sure agencies attract and hire high-quality applicants. In announcing the memo, Berry called quality "the other bottom line," but said defining success in that area is significantly more difficult than tracking hiring time. "That's a tougher one to measure, but we're working with the CHCO Council and OMB and others to develop metrics," he said.
"They really don't know how to help agencies determine whether or not they hired quality. It's a big mystery," Desenberg says. "I'm almost concerned we're spending an inordinate amount of time just to get the most people in the door as fast as possible and, to me, that's not the right question. I'd rather somehow work a little more slowly and get the right people who stay."
Laura Shugrue, deputy director of the Merit Systems Protection Board's Office of Policy and Evaluation, says much of the focus during the past several years has been on making the hiring process move more swiftly, which is important given widespread complaints from both agency officials and applicants. But Shugrue urges officials not to forget the quality angle, which she says often conflicts with speed.
"A lot of times when you're talking about quality, you're talking about adding on to the process," she says. "We can get applicants to apply faster using resumes and there's less burden on them, but in order to make that process a higher quality process, we have to make sure there are good assessment practices being used by the agencies behind that resume review."
Shugrue says there is little research or evidence on how well agencies review resumes and whether or not those reviews are accurate predictors of how someone will perform in a position. "We've done a lot of studies on applicant assessment processes, we've looked at structured interviews, job simulations, using probationary period as an actual assessment tool and more structured reference checks," she says. "And one thing we do know is it takes more time and resources to develop good assessment tools, and not all agencies have that time and those resources."
Desenberg says part of the challenge in attracting top candidates stems from a failure to write strong position descriptions. Managers' tendency has been to quickly cobble together a description and throw it over the fence to HR and see what comes back, he says. "The hammer came down on HR about days to hire, but it didn't come down on these hiring offices that were really the ones slowing down the process by not being specific enough, not really redoing the language around who they were looking for, and using old position descriptions," Desenberg says. "It can't just come down on HR; we've got to share accountability for this process between the human resources folks and the program offices that are actually looking for people."
Medina says training for hiring officials will raise the quality of applicants and new hires. Chief human capital officers understand that, at this point, much of the burden is on them to improve the process all around, she says.
"There is a shift going on in the council right now; they're really starting to feel their own sense of importance as HR leaders," Medina says. "With that comes the responsibility to be leaders and to understand that when the president issues a memo, when the director of OPM issues guidance, they need to step up as leaders and find solutions. They're doing that and it's great, because I don't think that was necessarily the historic dynamic of the council."