Obama wants federal agencies to hit the gas on hiring

Joe Davidson and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

If you've spent months trying to get a job with the federal government, things are about to get easier.

President Obama plans to instruct federal agencies to radically overhaul the process now used to hire government workers. The change is expected to cut in half the time it takes to fill vacancies and allow the government to better compete with the private sector for top talent.

It's been a long time coming. The Government Accountability Office has been calling for changes since 2001, and a host of outside voices have criticized the byzantine nature of federal hiring, with its stacks of paperwork and endless rounds of interviews that can keep an applicant hanging for months.

"You want to pull your hair out, you want to scream, you want to shout," said Stephanie Jones, 32, of Hyattsville, who lamented that she is only "killing trees" with her 75 federal job applications over the past three years.

David T. Ellwood, dean of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, describes it as a "19th-century hiring system" in which applications disappear into a "black hole." The process, "even at the best of times," he added, "can take nine months or a year."

Those seeking federal jobs apply through the USAjobs.gov Web site, which categorizes available positions by city and type. They must write essays, known as KSAs, that assess their knowledge, skills and abilities. Once the KSAs are submitted, a response can take months, if applicants get one at all.

Obama's plan, to be announced Tuesday morning, would cut hiring time to about 80 days from the date a vacancy is announced to the point a candidate is hired. In some agencies, it can take up to 200 days to process a hire, and 140 days is not uncommon.

The time lag is considered a big deterrent for workers like Jamie Doyle, 30, who are interested in bringing their skills to government but can't afford to wait months for their applications to be considered.

Doyle, of Philadelphia, said she gave up on government work because of the slow process. She received job offers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and a national security agency, but they came long after she had accepted a position with a private institute.

"The president is committing the power of his office to the importance of this issue, which is trying to streamline our hiring process," said John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management.

Although some government managers may like the current process because it weeds out certain applicants, calls for a hiring overhaul have come from across the spectrum, including unions, good-government groups, Democrats and Republicans.

The changes ordered by Obama would be obvious to an applicant from the beginning of the process. The dreaded KSAs would be dropped in favor of a system in which applicants submit résumés and fill out applications, as they do when applying for jobs in the private sector.

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