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The Federal Government's Broken Hiring Process

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:

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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