Replacing KSAs

As agencies phase out application essays, officials scramble to roll out new assessment tools.

Nov. 1 marks the first deadline in the hiring reform process for federal agencies. The often criticized knowledge, skills and abilities essays are on their way out, making way for a resume-based system. Getting rid of KSAs is the easy part; figuring out what specific assessment tools will replace them is proving more difficult.

President Obama in May issued a memorandum requiring changes to the federal hiring system, including eliminating KSAs, reducing hiring time, and giving managers more responsibility to recruit and interview candidates. Though Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry has said agencies are on track to adopt a resume-based system by Nov. 1, human resources officials acknowledge it will take time to roll out validated assessment tools to replace KSAs.

"Eliminating essays as a whole is the easy part, but we're also being called on to use reliable measures," says Rodney Markham, deputy director of human resources at the Justice Department.

While KSAs focus primarily on applicants' ability to write about their experiences, the new assessments will examine general competencies relevant to actual job requirements, such as cognitive skills, writing or logic abilities, says Angela Bailey, deputy associate director for recruitment and diversity at OPM. For example, after applicants have submitted their resumes, hiring managers could present candidates with a video simulation that requires them to react to a specific job situation, or a math reasoning assignment that gauges their responses. These general assessments are just the first hiring hurdle, says Bailey. Agencies then would have the opportunity to administer tests on more specific or technical competencies and to hold proctored assessments and structured interviews.

In addition to casting off KSAs in favor of resumes and more general assessments, the president's memo outlines a number of other hiring reform initiatives. Managers must map out current and future workforce requirements, identify the skills required for particular jobs and be actively involved in the interview process. Agencies must use a category rating system to keep the best-qualified applicants in a pool of potential hires, even if officials already have selected a candidate for the position. And the government must keep candidates who apply through USAJobs updated on the status of their application.

But federal agencies still face technical barriers to rolling out new hiring processes. In preliminary plans submitted to OPM, agencies reported the need for more support and funding for assessment tools. The Justice, Treasury and Veterans Affairs departments all identified delays caused by limited or antiquated information technology systems. VA has relied on paper-based hiring methods and has faced union opposition to launching USA Staffing, an automated system available governmentwide. The department doesn't expect to complete its rollout of USA Staffing until March 2011. While Justice lacks a centralized automated hiring process, Treasury is planning to make major changes to its IT system well into 2011.

According to Tim McManus, vice president of education and outreach at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, most agencies have in place automated systems to evaluate lengthy KSAs, but now must create effective online assessments based on shorter questionnaires.

"How do you assess in a way that's automated?" he says. "It's hugely important in this conversation because of the volume of applicants agencies get-hundreds and even thousands of applications for a single position."

OPM and the Office of Management and Budget are providing technical support, so progress depends more on agencies having the time and money required to redefine internal processes for these new assessments, McManus points out.

Justice is designing new systems around top occupations and training staff to use them, but Markham says the transition won't be easy. The department is collaborating with other agencies to better understand core competency requirements and looks to OPM as a clearinghouse, he says.

According to Bailey, OPM is taking a leadership role developing assessments for different occupations and also will work with other recruitment systems like Monster and Taleo to ensure those sites can integrate with USAJobs. OPM plans to test assessments and the IT systems that evaluate them with several agencies this fall and expects to roll out the program governmentwide in the summer of 2011. The testing phase will allow agencies to provide feedback and ensure applicants are satisfied with the new processes, says Bailey.

Candidates will review assessment scores and apply them to multiple job postings on an updated USAJobs site.

"You've got to get this right," she says. "You can't go live to 11 million people without testing and doing some kind of system validation."

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