Obama Administration Releases Last-Ditch Effort to Fix Federal Hiring

The Obama administration is requiring federal supervisors take a more active role in the hiring process, issuing new guidance Tuesday it says will help agencies better recruit and assess top talent.

The guidance was jointly issued by the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management and spelled out in clear terms many of the initiatives the administration has pushed over the last several years. OMB Director Shaun Donovan and acting OPM Director Beth Cobert said the guidance reflected “proven” strategies from the administration’s Hiring Excellence campaign, as well as feedback from thousands of managers and human resources staff solicited over the last year. OPM, OMB and the Presidential Personnel Office launched Hiring Excellence in May, which involved traveling the country to meet with various federal offices, promoting HR-manager collaboration, data-based analysis and special hiring authorities.

The guidance aims to instill several core principles into federal hiring, the first being to strengthen collaboration and clarify the distinct roles of HR staff and hiring managers. It requires supervisors to stay involved in every step of the hiring process, from the marketing of positions to candidate assessments. HR specialists, Donovan and Cobert said, should meet the needs of hiring managers and regularly converse with them to understand their needs and challenges. They attempted to dispel a prevalent myth that supervisors are supposed remove themselves from recruiting and hiring decisions on ethical grounds, saying the tasks were instead a fundamental responsibility.

Just 59 percent of hiring managers expressed satisfaction with the overall hiring process, according to the latest Chief Human Capital Officers survey. Nearly 70 percent said they had discussed with HR specialists the skills needed for open jobs, but only 56 percent had discussed hiring flexibilities and 28 percent discussed “incentive strategies.” Only four in 10 said they were actively involved in recruiting.

The memo emphasized the need to improve workforce planning and strategic recruiting, including a diverse workforce. It encouraged the use of data to target those efforts, and prescribed training to ensure all employees involved in hiring were fully aware of available authorities. OPM promoted its own tools, such as HRStat, to help agencies. Cobert and Donovan said agencies should update candidates throughout the hiring process and work with minority groups and local governments to reach a wide range of applicants.

Managers should involve themselves in writing job announcements, OPM and OMB said, which should be “clear, concise and captivating.” The postings should spell out specific qualifications needed for the opening and how it connects to the overall agency mission. Agencies should then go back and assess the data to determine which announcements were the most effective.

The guidance also called for better assessment strategies, including the use of subject matter experts to assess candidates. Again, the document attempted to dispel a myth that the experts are expected to remain neutral throughout the hiring process. It promoted various assessment tools when considering applicants, and using different screens at each step of the process to help whittle down the field of candidates.

Agencies are not expected to tackle all of the recommendations in the guidance at once; after a call with OPM and OMB to receive an explanation for the new directive on Tuesday, agencies must report by December on three of the initiatives in the document upon which they will focus next year. They can concentrate on implementing changes at the component or agencywide level. OPM will give feedback on those plans in January and establish baseline measurements, and assess initial results in September.

The HR agency is also creating a curriculum to better train human resources staff, with courses available next year.

“Improving the federal government’s ability to attract and hire the best talent is fundamental to achieving our many missions,” Cobert and OMB Senior Advisor Andrew Mayock wrote in a blog post to accompany the directive. “The guidance released today takes us one step further in our efforts to continue to recruit, hire and develop the world-class federal workforce the American people deserve.”

Hiring Excellence is the latest in a long series of reforms aimed at easing the burdensome federal recruiting and onboarding process, and the second by the Obama administration since 2015. Less than two years ago, then-OPM Director Katherine Archuleta launched the Recruitment, Engagement, Diversity and Inclusion (REDI) initiative to overhaul the federal hiring process. It also follows 2010 guidance issued by President Obama, which Donovan and Cobert said has created some progress but left many challenges remaining. 

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