Agencies use innovative hiring practices to fill jobs

By sprucing up job vacancy announcements, automating the hiring process, and using categorical rankings to rate applicants, some federal agencies have been able to fill openings more efficiently, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office.

"There is widespread recognition that the current federal hiring process all too often does not meet the needs of agencies in achieving their missions, managers in filling positions with the right talent and applicants for a timely, efficient, transparent and merit-based process," the report (GAO-03-450) said. On average, federal agencies take more than three months to fill vacancies, and most view the slow hiring process as a large problem, Office of Personnel Management officials told GAO researchers.

From June 2001 to January 2003, GAO interviewed human resources directors at 24 major federal agencies and reviewed studies conducted by Washington think tanks to determine the roots of inefficient hiring and find possible solutions to the problem. The watchdog agency determined that several factors, including unappealing job announcements, excess paperwork for processing applications and an inefficient process for ranking applicants, stood in the way of better recruiting practices.

Some agencies found innovative ways of getting around these problems, GAO reported, and these agencies can serve as models for others looking to improve their hiring practices.

For instance, the Health and Human Services Department made a concerted effort to write catchy job announcements for budget analyst openings, the report said. The department's old job listing read: "Incumbent is responsible for monitoring the results of budget execution and formulation input from six regional budget offices in coordination with the controller." The revised version said the position was "for the energetic individual who wants a challenging career with growth and advancement opportunities." The listing went on to emphasize that budget analysts have an opportunity to be on the "cutting edge" of health policy and provide "vital information and support" to government decision makers.

HHS posted the new announcements on private sector job search sites, including The Washington Post's Web site, as well as USAJOBS, the government's job listing center, GAO said. USAJOBS is undergoing a facelift this summer. By posting the listings on more sites and using snappier language, HHS now receives an average of 100 qualified applicants for each budget analyst opening, as opposed to an average of 20 before the changes, GAO said.

Of the 24 agency human resource directors interviewed by GAO, 19 said they had made some effort to automate parts of the hiring process. The U.S. Geological Survey and Census Bureau have made substantial strides in this area, GAO reported. The Geological Survey developed a computer system that electronically prescreens applicants and ranks them according to how well they meet job-related criteria. Managers can access data on applicants in the system. The system is easier for applicants as well, because they can apply for jobs online and they receive more timely updates on the status of their applications, GAO said.

The Census Bureau developed an automated system in 1998 to hire technology specialists and statisticians to work on the 2000 census. The system, managed by OPM, cut processing time for applications from three to four months to a week or less, GAO found.

In addition, agencies have benefited from using categorical ranking systems to rate applicants, rather than the "rule of three," a law that required federal managers to choose from among the three candidates rated as most qualified. The 2002 Homeland Security Act gave agencies the authority to use categorical ranking in hiring.

The Agricultural Research Service and Forest Service, both within the Agriculture Department, have benefited from ranking applicants categorically, GAO said. The two agencies began using categorical ranking as part of an OPM demonstration project. An evaluation of the new system found that it increased the number of applicants per job announcement and left agency managers more satisfied with recruiting efforts.