Progress Declared in Reforming Federal Hiring Process

By Roy Maurer Nov 29, 2010
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​In a move intended to demonstrate concern over a ballooning budget deficit, President Barack Obama announced Nov. 29, 2010, a two-year pay freeze for the civilian federal workforce.

The president’s announcement comes on the heels of a back-slapping session recently held at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to mark the progress made over the previous six months in modernizing the federal hiring process. Speaking at HUD, Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Director John Berry was joined by the federal government’s leading chief human capital officers in addressing the improvements in efficiency that have been achieved as a result of implementing President Obama’s hiring reform initiative.

“President Obama was clear in his directive to fix the hiring process—to make it more efficient and effective—and we are doing just that,” Berry said. “We are making the process used to hire new employees easier for the applicant and more efficient and cost-effective for our agencies,” he said.

“In order to have a government that is responsive to people and the changing needs of our economy, we must bring the federal workforce into the 21st century,” said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, whose agency has cut the average time it takes to fill a position from 145 days to 76. “HUD is making great progress as we work to further reduce the number of days it takes to fill a position and follow common practice by using resumes during initial recruitment,” Donovan said.


It appears the federal government

coming into line with private business.

Nancy Gerhardt Davies, HR director, Bodman LLP


Citing “the complexity and inefficiency of today’s federal hiring process, [which] deters many highly qualified individuals from seeking and obtaining jobs in the federal government,” Obama issued a May 2010 directive ordering federal agencies to modernize their hiring processes. Obama directed agencies to reduce the time it takes to hire an applicant and simplify the hiring process by accepting resumes and cover letters and by eliminating essay questions in initial applications. The initiative called for broadening the pool of qualified applicants instead of having hiring managers select from among the three highest-scoring applicants.

“Americans must be able to apply for federal jobs through a common sense hiring process, and agencies must be able to select high-quality candidates efficiently and quickly,” the president said.

“It appears to me that the federal government is coming into line where private business has been all along,” remarked Nancy Gerhardt Davies, director of human resources at Bodman LLP and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) Staffing Management Special Expertise Panel. “These initiatives will make it easier for candidates to understand job descriptions to know if they have the appropriate qualifications. Reforming the reviewing procedures will also help move the process forward,” Davies said.

Job descriptions have been shortened and rewritten in plain English. The often unpopular practice of requiring knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) essays from job applicants has also been reduced, with a greater emphasis on resumes and cover letters, Berry announced.

Hiring managers have been given more responsibility to recruit and interview candidates. Agencies have been instructed to be more transparent and to update candidates on the status of their applications.

In addition to HUD streamlining its hiring process from 39 steps to 14 and reducing its hiring time, other agencies touted their own improvements:

The Department of Defense announced its average hiring time is down to 79 days.

The Department of Energy is down to 100 days with a goal of 80 by the end of 2011.

The Department of Veterans Affairs reduced its hiring time by 22 percent, from 102 days to 82.

“There is much left to do, but the progress to date gives me a lot of optimism,” said Jeffrey Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget. “We are building a lot of momentum ... which will lead to structural improvement,” he said.

One Applicant’s Story

Horror stories surround the much-maligned USAJobs, the federal government’s portal for civil service employment. And while efforts at improvement in recent months were welcomed, there is general agreement that impediments in the system are still significant.

The hiring process “needs to be friendlier to those in the private sector seeking to work in the public sector. The Byzantine descriptions of experience required and federal grade levels are enough to make you question why you want to become a public servant,” said Julie Piazza, SPHR, former HR director for computer software company Sage Software. She has been unemployed since October 2009.

“Creating a database that hinders qualified candidates from the private sector by searching for government acronyms on resumes that are not in sync with the private sector is a real challenge,” Piazza told SHRM Online.

Piazza had been an HR director for about five years and more recently an HR manager for pharmaceutical company Merck when she relocated from San Diego to Seattle. Directed by neighbors to USAJobs, Piazza was stymied by the jargon in the job postings and “definitions” of years of experience and education, which correlate to federal grade levels not easily relatable to private-sector experience.


If the slightest misstep in the application process

is made, applicants typically never know.

Julie Piazza, SPHR


“It was so exceedingly convoluted, it seemed that I needed to take a seminar just to learn how to apply,” she said.

After being unemployed for more than a year, Piazza said, she has a fine-tuned process and typically can apply for three private-sector jobs online in an hour. In contrast, it takes her two hours to apply for one job at USAJobs. And then the waiting game begins. If the slightest misstep in the application process is made, the applicant typically will never know, as there is little contact with people regarding the applicant’s place in the process, she said.

For example, Piazza recently applied for three federal jobs through USAJobs, receiving three different results. After applying for an HR job at the Department of Commerce, “I received an automated e-mail stating that my application was still pending.”

She said that she received no response and was given no contact person to speak to regarding a job at Veterans Affairs. “I suspect that I made some mistake in the application process or didn’t meet the experience level, but I’m not sure,” she said.

And when applying for any position falling under a military service branch, as when Piazza applied for a job with the U.S. Army, the complications are exacerbated. The applicant is directed from the main jobs portal to build a separate profile on the military site and then is asked to scan or mail in additional documents such as service records if required. She was contacted in this case and told that her application was received.

Challenges Remain

Federal agencies have made progress on reducing the amount of time it takes to hire employees, but they still have to make progress on attracting quality candidates and developing hiring assessments, officials said. For example, HUD conceded that it’s still working to standardize job announcement language, streamline its security clearance process, refine its workforce planning process and roll out an improved information technology system. In addition, agencies will have to figure out new ways to assess candidates in the absence of KSA essays.

“There are certainly pros in the initiative, but there could be cons, too. I don’t believe that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to process improvement,” Cydney Miller, SPHR, told SHRM Online.

Miller, assistant human resources director for the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System in Clarksville, Tenn., and a member of SHRM’s Staffing Management Special Expertise Panel, agreed that simpler, streamlined job descriptions and announcements will pay off for applicants to measure their interest and qualifications more realistically.

However, “being shorter just for the sake of length is not necessarily a good thing if important information is being omitted,” she said.

The switch from KSA essays to reviewing resumes and cover letters, while popular with applicants, is another change that could become onerous to hiring staff, Miller said.

Noting that a simpler hiring process will most likely attract more applicants and increase application volume, reviewing resumes and cover letters in high-volume applicant pools “would still be quite laborious.”


Online assessments, profile builders and the
like can

rovide a calibrated approach to evaluating applicants

and … eliminate the need for staff to

review the bulk load of resumes.

Cydney Miller, SPHR, school system assistant HR director


To improve efficiency, “a hiring team should implement a method by which qualifications can be evaluated in the most efficient manner possible. Online assessments, profile builders and the like can provide a calibrated approach to evaluating applicants on the front end and eliminate the need for staff to review the bulk load of resumes,” she said.

“I don’t kid myself that someone might try to creep backward on KSAs,” said Berry. “There’s no problem if you get to your final five applicants and you want a writing sample. ... That’s a very fair interview technique. But when you have 10,000 applicants for a job, do we need to make all 10,000 do that? No. Let’s use the right tools at the right time,” he said.

Berry said work continues on ensuring that agencies hire the best applicant for each position. He said that OPM plans to survey managers on the process.

“What I see, at least from what we are hearing from the Chief Human Capital Officers Council and agency reports we are getting, is everyone is moving in the right direction,” Berry said. “Some are moving faster than others. The style we are taking with this is a peer process, using the council to regularly report on what agencies are doing and what is working,” he said.

Getting Cleared

Just as the federal hiring process is undergoing an overhaul, clearance no longer moves at a snail’s pace, according to Berry. The slow-moving security clearance process has been one of the most frustrating aspects of the federal hiring process.

OPM, which provides background investigations for more than 100 federal agencies, completes initial clearance inquiries in 39 days in 90 percent of the cases, the agency recently reported. Three years ago, it took 115 days. At the Defense Department, the security clearance process that once took almost a year now takes less than three months in most cases.

Berry listed a string of initiatives that helped cut clearance time, including:

*Expanding a central verification system that allows agencies access to individuals’ investigative histories and clearance statuses with a single search.

Increasing the use of electronic forms.

Increasing the use of digital fingerprinting equipment.

Converting from manual to automated record checks.

“The considerable attention placed on reforming the security clearance process has dramatically improved the timeliness and quality of investigative products while significantly improving the government’s ability to hire the best and efficiently put federal and contractor employees to work,” Berry said.

Roy Maurer is a staff writer for SHRM.

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