Untying the Knots in the Federal Hiring Process

Much can be done to help agencies share expertise and attract young talent.

Katherine Archuleta, director of the Office of Personnel Management, recently told an audience at the Excellence in Government Conference that “We are drilling down in agencies to find the knots in the hiring process, and to untie them.” To that, I say, “Full speed ahead. We’re right there with you.”

Archuleta’s initiative needs all the support she can muster because the federal recruitment and hiring system, both for pre-career and mid-career employees, is seriously limping, and federal internship programs are just plain broken. That was my message in March when I testified on behalf of the Volcker Alliance before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Let me now offer a few suggestions for hiring and retention, which I hope Archuleta and Congress can quickly untangle. Some of these fixes require no new legislation, just strong leadership.

Fix federal internship and graduate programs. We need more young people in government with fresh minds, an information age mind-set, new technology skills and knowledge of effective approaches. Unfortunately, energetic graduates who want to work for the federal government have a ridiculously hard time getting hired. A recent study found that fully a quarter of college students rank government service among their top three target industries, yet even federal agencies with job openings have had a hard time capitalizing on this enthusiasm. Many agencies seem caught in a quagmire of misunderstanding and confusion about requirements for OPM’s new Pathways career program, a situation I hope OPM will soon address.

OPM also needs to turn its attention to fixing the Presidential Management Fellows program, its flagship leadership program for recent graduates. Even before sequestration and uncertain budget problems, the PMF program had surprisingly low placement levels.

OPM should initiate a thorough, objective, evidence-based and open after-action assessment of all aspects of the PMF program, including outreach, screening, placement practices, post-hiring support and impact.

Make greater use of the Intergovernmental Personnel Act. This law allows for the temporary assignment of personnel between the federal government and eligible not-for-profit organizations, colleges and universities, and state and local governments. A large number of federal programs depend on other levels of government and nonprofits to accomplish their objectives. IPAs, currently underutilized, can help these intergovernmental and nonprofit delivery partnerships flourish. IPAs build appreciation of each partner’s capacity, know-how and perspectives, leading to better results. They can be used to facilitate the exchange of subject matter experts and specialists in policy design and delivery methods such as evaluation, analytics and operations research. 

The federal government should set and manage a stretch target for increased use of the Intergovernmental Personnel Act to bring into agencies knowledge, experience and skills from other levels of government, the nonprofit sector and academia and to enrich the experience of federal employees through external rotations.

Expand the short-term fellows programs. One area of success in recent years is the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, a partnership facilitated by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the General Services Administration. Now entering its third year, the program pairs innovators from outside government with top civil servants to tackle especially thorny challenges, such as making veterans services “digital by default” and increasing public access to data collected by government agencies. The administration’s plan to expand the use of Innovation Fellows as part of the Obama Administration’s “Smarter IT Delivery” cross-agency priority goal is a great idea. But it should not be limited to developing new IT delivery capacity. 

The Presidential Innovation Fellows Program should be expanded to innovators with other needed skill sets, such as project management and analytics, to help federal agencies better use performance, financial, and risk data they collect.

Establish cross-agency hiring authority. There is one fix that does need legislative attention, and Congress can do its part by approving the proposal in a 2010 federal hiring reform package that would allow one agency to recruit and screen for others. This one small legislative change would yield big returns. It would allow an agency that identifies, for instance, five strong cybersecurity specialists to share standout applicants with other agencies seeking similar employees. Specialization would most likely develop in different parts of the federal government, which undoubtedly makes more sense than expecting every agency to build strong recruitment and screening capacity for all the skills it needs, a practice that is clearly wasteful and likely to produce fewer well-qualified applicants.

Effective delivery demands great people at all levels of government, both experienced folks aware of federal challenges and requirements and fresh minds with new ideas and skills. Unfortunately, the current system creates huge barriers that make it nearly impossible for those with fresh minds to join the federal workforce. 

The hiring problem demands priority attention. Three cheers for Archuleta’s commitment to untie the knots of the federal hiring process. We at the Volcker Alliance will work with you to create a hospitable environment for the government to recruit and hire its future leaders.

Shelley H. Metzenbaum is the founding president of the Volcker Alliance. She is former associate director for performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget, where she was responsible for setting and implementing the Obama administration’s approach to improving the performance of federal programs. Follow her on Twitter: @Smetzenbaum

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