Making a few strides on hiring reform

Joe Davidson
Columnist April 21, 2011

Obama administration efforts to fix the federal hiring process are making progress, according to those inside and outside of government, but no one claims the job is done.

The latest undertaking in that massive effort is a pilot online assessment program, cleverly called the Assess Pilot, that the Office of Personnel Management says “will provide applicants an opportunity to demonstrate that they actually have the abilities necessary for a particular job.”

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Too bad they can’t apply that to members of Congress.

If the wording of the OPM fact sheet indicates that applicants didn’t have to demonstrate their abilities previously, then the hiring process may have been in worse shape than we realized.

Under the pilot program, “rather than asking an applicant how good they are at solving problems, they will be presented a challenge and asked to solve it.”

Sounds good. Not visionary, but good.

Actually, the OPM information might understate the significance of this program. And it’s important to remember that the hiring process was so messed up before President Obama ordered it fixed last year that even steps that seem elementary can lead to significant improvements.

When it comes to speeding up the notoriously slow hiring process, one of the key elements of Assess — number four of six bullets on the fact sheet — says the result of an applicant’s assessment can be used by more than one agency:

“So, for example, if an applicant applied for a GS-9 accountant position at one agency that used Assess, and then applied for a GS-9 accountant position at another agency that used Assess, they would not need to retake the assessments.”

That should speed up the process. To make it even faster, the applicant should be able to apply to just one place for jobs that are common among agencies. This notion of a common list has been floating around the OPM for years, and it has been used to a limited extent.

For certain positions, such as budget analyst, the OPM does use a shared registry, but Angela Bailey, deputy associate OPM director for recruitment and diversity, said officials need to make sure there is a demand among the agencies for that kind of program before it is implemented.

Some agencies like to have more control over the application process than a shared registry would allow, added Robert Shriver, the OPM’s senior policy counsel.

Although it’s a pilot program, the particular agencies using Assess could give it a big boost toward gaining government-wide acceptance, if it is a success. According to the last bullet on the fact sheet, the agencies include the OPM, which obviously has some influence in federal personnel matters, and the Executive Office of the President, whose influence should be obvious.

The departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services are in the pilot. Together, they employ about half the federal workforce, not including the Postal Service. This pilot clearly isn’t limited to small agencies where it could be forgotten.

Overall, the hiring reform effort has resulted in a drop in the time it takes to hire federal workers from an average of 131 in 2009 to 105 days last year, Bailey said.

“We know we’re making really good progress when it comes to time to hire,” she said.

Union runoff election

The runoff election to select a union to represent transportation security officers has been set for May 23 to June 21, according to the campaigning labor organizations. The results will be tallied June 23.

A runoff is necessary because neither the National Treasury Employees Union nor the American Federation of Government Employees won a majority of votes in the first election period, which closed Tuesday.

In that race, AFGE came in first, with 8,369 votes to NTEU’s 8,095, out of a total of 19,587, including 12 contested ballots. The “no union” option, selected by 3,111 voters, will not be available on the runoff ballot. Eighty-four percent of the workers who voted chose union representation. About 43,000 employees were eligible to vote.

The four-week runoff is two weeks shorter than the original election period. Some union officials said they thought that the six-week period may have contributed to a turnout that was lower than it could have been by dampening any sense of urgency among the electorate.

The runoff will be conducted electronically, by telephone and online, as was the first vote.

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