Hiring reform may not be enough to boost federal workforce

A faster and more streamlined hiring process isn't enough to build a strong federal workforce, human capital experts said Monday.

During a session at Government Executive's Excellence in Government conference, panelists said that the quality of new federal hires still is lagging even as agencies fill jobs more quickly. To create a high-performing workforce, agencies must look beyond simple process improvements to issues of attrition, onboarding and strategic planning, they said.

The key challenge agencies are facing today is "strategically shaping your workforce, not just hiring," said Jon Desenberg, policy director at the Performance Institute. "Today it's a much different reality, which is how are we going to shape the workforce as it possibly gets smaller, and the worst possible outcome is to let Congress go ahead with these salami slice, across-the-board freezes and this voluntary attrition. When you offer people buyouts, who leaves? The people who can get great jobs other places."

When asked whether their agencies have made progress on hiring reform, some attendees reported they have decreased time to hire. But most said applicant quality has declined. Panelists noted that attrition, particularly for young hires, is "abysmal," adding that agencies must ensure that the work environment is conducive to good performance. Onboarding, training and workforce planning are extensions of the hiring process, they said.

According to panelists, federal agencies can improve candidate quality, as well as retention and performance, by using and enhancing the processes already in place. Government doesn't need to overhaul job classifications or hiring flexibilities but rather educate managers, human resources staff and potential applicants on how to properly navigate those systems, they said.

"Systems do not give people brains or guts," said Angela Bailey, deputy associate director of recruitment and hiring at the Office of Personnel Management. "You can keep creating new systems, but if you don't have those two factors, the system, whether it's current or new, will fail."

Agencies also should look beyond metrics like time to hire to things that aren't done well, such as the percentage of candidates who abandon their applications because the process is too complex, and then use that information to make real progress, Desenberg said.

"This stuff is not complicated," said Bailey. "We just overanalyze everything. Just do it. Make it simple."

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