Job One

Overhauling the federal hiring system becomes a critical imperative.

In mid-September, during a meeting of the federal Chief Human Capital Officers Council, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry called in reporters to provide an update on the Obama administration's effort to streamline the federal hiring process. Specifically, Berry addressed agencies' progress toward meeting a Nov. 1 goal to adopt a résumé-based process, eliminating cumbersome knowledge, skills and abilities statements on job applications, and involving managers more directly in the hiring process.

Berry's message was simple: Don't worry, we're on track.

He had good reason to feel the need to reassure not only higher-ups in the administration, but federal managers and employees as well, that the initiative is proceeding as scheduled. Much is riding on its success.

As Brittany Ballenstedt reports in this issue, agencies are facing a critical challenge in recruiting a new generation of information technology workers to replace workers who are going to retire at some point (even if the dreaded baby boomer retirement wave has yet to materialize) and to fill critical emerging needs. In the field of cybersecurity, for example, one expert estimates the government will have to employ 30,000 specialists in a profession that is evolving at a breakneck pace.

Jeff Neal, chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department, says cybersecurity is "one of the poster children for federal hiring reform." Even getting a new job classification in the field can take two years, and that's before the formal hiring process starts.

When the process does begin, it typically takes a long time to finish. Even under Berry's reform plan, the goal is to get agencies to cut their average time to fill a position to 80 days. But assuming they hit that target, they'll still be far behind companies in the tech sector, where moving swiftly to stay ahead of the competition is the rule. And agencies will be sending a message to would-be techies that in federal operations, bureaucracy is still the rule. It's sobering to think that even during a deep recession, federal agencies aren't getting a bumper crop of qualified applicants for IT openings.

When it comes to implementing Berry's initiative, agencies raised serious questions in their mid-September progress reports. For example, many of them currently have automated systems in place to analyze KSAs, but are unclear about exactly what types of evaluation systems should replace them.

The good news is Berry and others understand that given such concerns, the Nov. 1 deadline is just an initial step. A true overhaul of the system could take years. Here's hoping that's not too late to get the Information Age workforce government will need to be effective in meeting its myriad missions.

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