Acting OPM Director Beth Cobert said the guidance offers agencies alternatives to the traditional applicant screening methods.

Acting OPM Director Beth Cobert said the guidance offers agencies alternatives to the traditional applicant screening methods. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

OPM Tries to Make Senior Executive Hiring Less Annoying For Everybody

To comply with President Obama’s executive order, agencies should consider leaning more on applicants' resumes, and moving away from lengthy written statements.

The Office of Personnel Management is encouraging federal agencies to use a resume-based application process for senior executive candidates to attract the best applicant pool – and also save people some aggravation.

“This method provides an alternative to the traditional submission by applicants of a resume and a 10-page written ECQ [Executive Core Qualifications] narrative statement, helping applicants and agencies reduce the burden of lengthy written materials at the onset of the application process,” said March 11 OPM guidance to agencies aimed at improving the Senior Executive Service application and selection process. “Following application, the agency can and should examine applicants through other methods, as appropriate.”

There are several ECQs that SES candidates have to demonstrate including managing people, team building skills, creativity and innovation, financial acumen, and problem-solving abilities.

The guidance, which focuses on the documentation that SES candidates and agencies have to submit to the Qualifications Review Board (QRB) to prove they are right for the job, is the latest effort from OPM to implement President Obama’s December 2015 executive order to improve the recruitment and hiring of senior executives.

“The guidance includes information and tools for agencies to implement hiring and QRB submissions that will serve as alternatives to the traditional methods commonly applied by agencies,” said OPM Acting Director Beth Cobert in a March 11 memorandum to agencies. Cobert said that OPM wants figure out the best way to comply with the SES application process while also maximizing available flexibilities. OPM “will provide additional support to agencies through SES hiring/QRB forums, development of new leadership assessment solutions, and other tools and resources,” Cobert said.

OPM also suggested agencies “carefully consider” the need for technical qualifications for SES positions. “OPM strongly encourages agencies to conduct a rigorous analysis of qualification requirements and avoid duplicating qualification requirements that are already represented in the ECQs or which are not essential to the effective evaluation of candidate qualifications.” The agency proposed limiting TQ requirements to a few specific qualifications, focused on the position, rather than asking candidates to fulfill several general criteria.

“While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, agencies should seek to eliminate or minimize application requirements that may deter qualified candidates from applying, when it is possible to do so, and still have merit staffing process that can be validated,” the guidance said.

OPM by law has to administer QRBs to certify SES candidates’ executive qualifications. The QRBs -- independent, peer review boards comprised of volunteer senior executives from across government -- mark the last step in the SES application process. QRBs approve nearly all SES candidate submissions, but also serve as an important check against incompetence (weeding out candidates who don’t cut the mustard) and political pressure (preventing political appointees from burrowing into the top career corps).

OPM emphasized the important role QRBs play in the SES application process, but also acknowledged that the process has become time-consuming because of the traditional reliance on written documentation, which “may cause barriers and disincentives for candidates to apply for SES positions, as well as causing significant administrative burdens on hiring agencies to review and assess materials and to prepare QRB submissions,” the guidance said.

Currently, the hiring agency must submit to OPM evidence that demonstrates a candidate’s executive qualifications using one of three methods: the traditional written executive core qualification narrative (no more than 10 pages); a QRB template; or an accomplishment record.

The written narrative, while the most detailed and comprehensive, also is typically the “most burdensome and time-consuming” for the applicant, as OPM noted. The standard template method pulls information on a candidate from agency interviews and other supporting documents. That’s the least onerous for the candidate, but usually more work for the hiring agency. The accomplishment record option is a combination of the other two. “This method typically occupies a middle ground with regard to the comprehensiveness of information provided to the QRB – between the ECQ narrative method and the QRB template method – and also balances the preparation of materials between the agency and the candidate,” said the March 11 guidance.

Under a resume-based application process, SES candidates would submit resumes in which they demonstrate their ECQs instead of submitting, for instance, a 10-page written ECQ narrative and a resume. The change would be similar to when the government eliminated the knowledge, skills, and abilities written statements in 2010 in favor of resumes for General Schedule jobs. “This method has been shown to achieve successful results in both attracting qualified candidates and diversifying the applicant pool,” OPM said.

The March 11 guidance, which lists resources to assist agencies in using a resume-based system, also asked agencies to volunteer to test some new application methods and provide feedback on proposed ideas. For instance, OPM is considering incorporating an option allowing applicants and agencies to provide video documentation of ECQs during the selection process.

The Senior Executives Association praised OPM for issuing the guidance and providing alternatives to improve the SES hiring process and the QRB portion of it. “This will be particularly valuable for agencies to not only successfully bring top SES talent into agencies, but to do so in a way that will withstand the strong scrutiny of oversight by stakeholders, including Congress, inspectors general, the Government Accountability Office, and others, to enable accountability to the American people,” said SEA Interim President Jason Briefel in a March 2 letter to Cobert responding to OPM’s draft guidance on QRB submission methods.