KSAs could be kaput by April

OPM chief says plan to eliminate controversial essays from federal hiring process is on the fast track.

The much-maligned essays on federal job applications known as knowledge, skills and abilities statements could be eliminated from the hiring process by April, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said on Tuesday.

Berry said he expects to send President Obama a plan next week outlining immediate hiring reforms, including shifting from KSAs on government applications to a resume-based system. Obama could sign an executive order implementing the changes as early as April, the OPM chief said during the Federal Managers Association's annual convention in Arlington, Va.

"We'll get the federal system off of its island of KSAs, and onto the resume base that the rest of the country is on," Berry said. Federal job applicants long have complained that KSAs are cumbersome and inflexible.

During his speech on Tuesday, Berry outlined several hiring and performance management reforms, some of which will be unveiled soon, including another proposal that would allow hiring managers across government to consider rejected job applicants from other departments and agencies. Creating a centralized pool from which managers could cull would require a legislative change.

"This is pretty common-sense stuff," Berry said. "It kind of boggles my mind that it hasn't been done 50 years before. We're going to get it done." OPM also will be pushing for legislation to eliminate the so-called rule of three in which agencies select hires from among the three top candidates for a position.

In addition, Berry outlined some general ideas for reforming federal personnel and performance rating systems across government. He said the core of his approach is to view government from a "results-only" perspective, or judging employees based on how well they achieve results, rather than how well they follow procedure.

"Really, the nut of it is, if we can define results that flow from your strategic plan all the way down to employee performance -- what are the results and outcomes, rather than the processes and inputs -- it will be a dramatic shift," Berry said.

One crucial element of that dramatic shift would be empowering supervisors to be more aggressive about dealing with unproductive employees, Berry said. While he said he did not have specific proposals yet, Berry discussed the idea of giving supervisors the ability to take away cost-of-living increases or other pay raises for subpar workers until they improve their conduct. The OPM chief also suggested establishing three-member panels of Senior Executive Service officials to review and act on suggested terminations, so the employee's supervisor isn't accountable for the final decision.

"I want to make it easier to get rid of dead wood," Berry said. "We all know that we have black holes in our agencies that suck down on energy."

Berry also is looking into reforming the system used to evaluate personnel performance. He echoed a remark made last week by Office of Management and Budget's Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients that too many employees receive top rankings, thus diminishing the evaluation system. Berry joked the federal government was too much like Lake Wobegon from the famous radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," where "all the children are above average." Berry said one option could be limiting the number of employees within a department who receive exceptional ratings.

Clarification: The rule of three requires managers to select hires from among the top three candidates; it does not pertain to actual interviews with applicants, as indicated in an earlier version of this story.