Don’t Go, KSAs

Federal managers will find ways to revive ‘knowledge, skills and abilities’ statements under a different name if hiring reformers eliminate them.

Woe is the fresh-faced graduate, clenching a new master's degree in public policy, when he finds himself staring at a federal government job application that asks for a series of expository paragraphs describing how his knowledge, skills and abilities qualify him for the position he wants.

How horrible that he cannot simply email his resume to the government agency of his choice, just as he e-mailed it to a high-priced consulting firm. Instead he must sit and ponder how his various internships and mountainous coursework have prepared him for employment with the U.S. government. And then write it all down.

Ummm, really? Is it seriously that hard? Is it honestly too much to ask? Considering that federal agencies usually are inundated with applications for vacancies, is it really so burdensome to expect job seekers to explain, in writing, why managers should hire them over the hundreds of other candidates? Should the burden really be on hiring managers to decipher an applicant's qualifications rather than expect the applicant to spell them out?

These are the questions facing federal hiring process reformers as they consider the elimination of "knowledge, skills and abilities" statements from standard government application forms. The KSAs, as they are commonly known in bureaucratese, have been staples of Uncle Sam's hiring process for decades. Many applicants -- most vocally those who have matriculated from the country's most vaunted institutions of higher learning -- have long complained that the KSAs are a real pain. Some disgruntled job seekers say they're so much of a pain that KSAs are a contributing factor in their decision to work in the private sector rather than the federal government. Uncle Sam is losing the "best and brightest" because of these KSAs, hiring reformers long have claimed.

But if the "best and brightest" are so turned off by the need to submit lengthy documentation supporting their claims that they are indeed the best and brightest, then perhaps they really aren't well-suited for jobs in a paperwork-intensive environment such as the federal government.

While applicants might complain about KSAs, federal hiring managers and human resources officials often praise them. KSAs help hiring officials whittle vast pools of applicants down to a set of cream-of-the-crop candidates. KSAs also showcase applicants' writing and reasoning skills, and attention to detail. Well-crafted KSA statements help agencies determine which people are best qualified to do the government's work.

Even if KSAs are officially abandoned, job applicants shouldn't expect them to go away. Instead, watch for hiring officials to find a new name for the old KSA. Past efforts to streamline federal human resources rules typically have resulted in agencies using the same processes under a different moniker. The government's lengthy standard form for hiring, the SF-171, was eliminated in 1995, but agencies asked applicants to submit extensive "supplemental data" along with their resumes instead.

In the end, managers need to know whether candidates are up to the job. Reformers might think the onus should be on managers to figure that out, but the truth is, the burden is always on the applicant, whether that burden comes in the form of KSAs or not.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.