Agencies still must do more to fix hiring process

Thursday - 9/29/2011, 5:45am EDT

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said job descriptions used to be ridiculously long before President Barack Obama launched a hiring reform initiative in May 2010.

"I showed the President one that was 72 pages," Berry said. "He looked at it and said, 'John, my job description isn't 72 pages. We just gotta fix this.'"

Federal hiring still takes too long and asks too much of applicants, but it's getting better, Berry said. He told a crowd at the Brookings Institution Wednesday the federal hiring process was inching closer to that of Fortune 500 companies.

And with many federal employees eligible to retire, he said, the government needs star workers capable of making breakthroughs like decoding the human genome.

"To keep doing great things like this and innovate for the future, we need to build the model workforce and become the model employer for the 21st century," he said.

After a year of trying to address the hiring process problems, it now takes 15 percent less time. Most job descriptions now are no more than five pages and are easier to read. Sometimes they require little more than a resume. Berry said he underestimated the challenge of convincing agencies to give up their requirements for time-consuming essays meant to test candidates' knowledge, skill and abilities (KSAs).

"Only in the federal government would there be lobbyists hired to protect KSAs. But they have been defeated and routed and we have now moved into the world of the resume," he said.

Despite the gains, outside experts warned that the federal hiring process still frightens away applicants.

Elaine Kamarck, a former Clinton appointee who lectures at the Harvard Kennedy School, said the government had a "window of opportunity" because few other places are hiring.

But, she added, the process deters her students from applying to government openings.

"First thing that happens is you fill out a form that is absolutely interminable, unbelievable," she said. "The second thing that happens is you read a job description that is absolutely incomprehensible. You bring it to your professor and your professor says, 'That's incomprehensible.' No one knows what the job is. The third thing that happens is you manage to get through all those hurdles. You send it all in and you hear nothing."

While the administration's hiring reform initiative focuses on those pitfalls, OPM only can encourage agencies to make changes in a decentralized hiring process.

"Director Berry has said himself on a number of occasions that it might as well be called the 'Office of Personnel Recommendations.' You don't have a lot in the way of sticks and enforcement mechanisms," Alan Balutis, a fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration, told OPM senior policy counsel Rob Shriver.

"The 'Office of Personnel Recommendations,' hits home, it's true," Shriver agreed. But, he said, agency human resources staff are thirsty for OPM's guidance. "The HR offices really want to do good work. They want to know what they could be doing to make things better."

Panelists had plenty of ideas. Agencies should rethink the tools they use to assess candidates. Then, they should continue to evaluate new hires carefully throughout the probationary period.

"That assessment of talent is vital," said Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. "At the end of the day, it doesn't much matter if you hire quickly or slowly if you've got the wrong person."

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