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The Federal Government's Broken Hiring Process

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By Max Stier
Special to the Washington Post
Friday, December 19, 2008; 12:00 AM

The excitement created by Barack Obama's election combined with the faltering economy has led to an unprecedented deluge of applications for federal jobs -- a perfect opportunity for the government to hire some of the nation's previously unavailable top talent.

Unfortunately, the odds are that this story will end badly.

The sad truth is that the federal government's hiring process is broken. It is inflexible, confusing, time-consuming, and has difficulty matching the right talent with the appropriate jobs. It could easily become a major impediment to improving the caliber of the federal workforce and to capitalizing on a new generation ready to answer the call to service.

There has never been a better time to fix this problem.

The weakening economy means that corporate America is hemorrhaging the best and the brightest at a rapid rate. It is also a moment when we desperately need an effective government to deal with a collapsing financial services industry, wounded automakers, a massive stimulus package, two foreign wars and a cash-strapped social service system.

More than 330,000 people have applied for jobs on the President-elect Obama's Web site hoping to secure one of the coveted 4,000 politically-appointed positions in the White House, the federal departments, agencies and commissions.

There also will be roughly 100,000 career civil service jobs open for professional positions in 2009 -- qualified engineers, scientists, doctors, nurses, accountants, business managers, financial experts and IT specialists. At last count, there were 2.8 million people a week visiting www.USAJobs.gov looking for employment. That's 500,000 more visits per week compared to this past summer.

The sheer number of applicants means the vast majority of people will not get jobs and will come away disappointed, including many of those inspired by the election and hoping to make a difference. A bad experience with the federal civil service hiring process -- a now all too common occurrence -- could dampen that spirit and add to the general disillusionment with government and government service.

Given these facts, what should the new administration do to ensure that millions of job applicants do not fall into a black hole, and that top talent is selected?

When he takes office, President Obama should:

  • For the first time ever send a direct and unequivocal message to all top political appointees and to senior career managers at every federal department and agency that the hiring process is a high priority -- that it is not just a personnel issue but a leadership issue.
  • Immediately require each agency to undertake an unprecedented, high-level review of its hiring process. Determine what's needed to make the system work more efficiently right now, and do it.
  • Channel additional staff and resources to get the hiring task right and hold managers accountable.
  • Order every agency to adopt an Applicant's Bill of Rights that ensures each job seeker is treated fairly, openly, promptly and with respect. That means resumes must be reviewed in a timely manner and job seekers must be notified by e-mail immediately after their applications have been received. They should be provided with a timeframe for the process, told the odds they face and informed as quickly as possible of the outcome.
  • Direct that a newly named chief technology officer place a hiring system fix high on the ``to do'' list, providing readily available software solutions to agencies that can be adopted quickly and used to improve the applicant review process.

The new president's policy agenda will be dominated by the financial crisis and many other urgent matters, and a process issue involving the federal bureaucracy may not seem all that urgent. But Obama's success depends on good execution by a first-rate workforce. Getting it right is crucial, and no one wants any more government breakdowns, especially in times such as these.

There is a rare opportunity to bring motivated, top flight people into our government in sizable numbers. The only thing worse than not having citizens interested in government is having talented people eager to answer the call, and then having a government that is not ready.

Max Stier is president and CEO of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, which works to revitalize and upgrade the federal government.


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