Feds see success in streamlining complicated hiring process

Wednesday - 9/19/2012, 4:00am EDT

Linda Bilmes, Senior Lecturer, Harvard Kennedy School of Government

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The federal government's hiring process — an important avenue for bringing in new talent and keeping core projects and programs running — has long been plagued with a poor reputation.

Here's how President Barack Obama framed the issue in a May 2010 memo on federal hiring:

Why hiring reform was rated Effective
Reason #1: OPM launched Pathways Program and other initiatives to attract fresh talent.

Reason #2: Metrics on Performance.gov show continual improvement in and agency satisfaction of hiring process.

Reason #3: OPM efforts to successfully increase the number of veterans hired by the federal government recognized by the Service to America Medal awards.

(More primary source material available on The Obama Impact Resource Page)

To deliver the quality services and results the American people expect and deserve, the federal government must recruit and hire highly qualified employees, and public service should be a career of choice for the most talented Americans. Yet the complexity and inefficiency of today's federal hiring process deters many highly qualified individuals from seeking and obtaining jobs in the federal government.

Obama directed agencies to eliminate outdated essay-style questions from their applications and to allow people to apply for federal jobs simply by submitting resumes and cover letters.

Hiring managers were told to use a category-rating approach, instead of picking from only the three highest-scoring applicants, and to become more involved in the hiring process.

Since then, the Office of Personnel Management has taken great strides to streamline the hiring process as well as to incorporate other reforms to make it easier to hire recent college graduates, people with disabilities and veterans.

OPM launched the Pathways Program and the Presidential Management Fellows Program to better bring in fresh talent. The administration has succeeded in increasing the hiring of veterans and people with disabilities. Because of these efforts to streamline and improve the overall hiring process, Federal News Radio has rated the federal government's hiring reform efforts effective.

This rating is part of Federal News Radio's special report, The Obama Impact: Evaluating the Last Four Years. Throughout the series, Federal News Radio examines 23 different ideas and initiatives instituted by the Obama Administration and ranks them as effective, ineffective and more progress needed.

For analysis of the Obama administration's efforts to reform hiring, Federal News Radio turns to Linda Bilmes, a senior lecturer at the Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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Bilmes said the recent hiring reforms are a step in the right direction but there is more the administration and even Congress can do to improve retention and to attract highly-qualified job candidates, like her students at Harvard.

"We are operating in a situation where the uncertainty over the budget and these continuing resolutions which go on and on and on mean that we we kind of have one step forward and two steps back. My students in theory think they are going to be hired. But then the agencies don't know whether they are going to have enough money to hire interns," she said. "There is a lot of uncertainty and confusion."

And top graduates may be turned off by the negativity lobbed at federal workers in the media and by politicians. The possibility they may work for several years without a pay raise or the threat their entire department could be shut down can also spur graduates to look for jobs elsewhere, Bilmes said.

She said the revises to the internship, graduate and presidential fellows programs, now known collectively as the Pathways Programs, are a great improvement but that agencies need to know that they will have the funding to take advantage of young workers. She said the fellows program could be greatly expanded to include more students.

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The administration also directed agencies to reduce the average time it takes to hire news employees.

The key to retaining young workers is to offer them mentorship, training and the ability to learn and grow. Young workers today do not envision working for the federal government their entire careers and expect they will work in both the private and non-profit sectors as well. They want skills that will transfer, Bilmes said.

The Founding Fathers believed that high regard from the public would provide the greatest incentive for Americans to be public servants. And they also believed a "steady administration" was key to attracting the best workers, she said.

Director of OPM John Berry has done a good job trying to make the hiring process faster and more straightforward, Bilmes said. "But the environment I think is still very, very difficult. I see all of my students thinking 'Well that sounds like an interesting job but I don't know. You know, I might be better off going to fill in the blank: Gates Foundation, Rand Corp., McKinsey or whatever."


More from the special report, The Obama Impact: Evaluating the Last Four Years

Part 1: Evaluating the Obama administration's management initiatives

Part 2: Evaluating Obama's technology reforms

Part 3: Evaluating Obama's workforce initiatives

Part 4: Evaluating Obama's acquisition efforts

Part 5A: What would a second-term for President Obama mean for feds?

Part 5B: What would a Romney presidency mean for federal workers?