Private sector not necessarily a model for hiring reform

Private sector strategies might not be the answer to federal hiring reform, according to a report from a management consulting firm.

For instance, eliminating knowledge, skills and abilities essays on federal job applications and focusing on résumés could backfire, the report by Avue Technologies Corp. stated. Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry has said he would consider such an approach, and Sens. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, proposed eliminating KSAs as part of a bill to streamline government hiring.

"Many comparisons have been made to private sector HR processes that, in theory, make it easier for applicants to apply for jobs -- and some attempts have been made to codify process improvements," the report said. "But, in actual practice, what makes applying easier for applicants very often bogs down the federal hiring process itself."

There is little delegation of hiring authority to line managers in the federal sector, according to the report, which noted that hiring reform is integral to the Obama administration's insourcing efforts. The federal government also maintains a relatively large HR workforce in comparison to the private sector, and hires a substantial number of contractors to help with the process.

While private sector managers are able to recruit, and assess and hire job candidates quickly and without the support of internal human resources staff, the federal process is supervised by agency HR personnel who have completed extensive training on government hiring regulations but who are rarely experts on the job to be performed. When faced with résumés rather than detailed KSAs, HR personnel must subjectively evaluate candidates for positions or seek additional information from applicants to determine eligibility, thus adding steps to the process.

John Palguta, vice president for policy at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said résumés are only one step in the process and can be used to determine whether applicants meet basic job requirements, such as education level. To be eligible for a job, applicants for federal positions must meet certain criteria, which often are tailored to a specific hiring objective, such as compliance with the 1944 Veterans Preference Act.

"There are smart ways to use KSA narratives as part of the assessment process," Palguta said. "[The Office of Management and Budget] and OPM are looking at it from the applicant's point of view and from a good assessment point of view to develop better assessment approaches."

One strategy, he said, would be to end the government's reliance on lengthy KSAs and instead to develop a shorter alternative with carefully crafted questions about the job to be performed. A second level of screening would require applicants to complete more specific questions, and that would be followed by a structured interview, creating a funnel effect. This method would save time for candidates, who would not be asked to complete long KSAs for each job application, and for hiring officials, who would not have to waste time reading and evaluating KSAs from candidates lacking basic qualifications.

In an April agency newsletter, John Crum, director of the Office of Policy and Evaluation for the Merit Systems Protection Board, wrote that excessive resources are being devoted to an initial level of low-quality assessment tools that are ultimately poor predictors of job success. Using the first screening, consisting of broad and easy-to-complete questions on work experience combined with achievement records, to determine basic qualifications would not only identify the best candidates for more in-depth evaluation, but also make the process easier for applicants, Crum said.

While OPM declined to comment directly on the Avue report, Sedelta Verble, communications director, said, "Hiring is not just about machines and numbers. It is also about making the applicant feel comfortable."

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