Obama wants federal agencies to hit the gas on hiring

Joe Davidson and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 11, 2010; A01

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.

Departments within agencies would also switch to a new system known as "category hiring." Under this plan, after the Army has screened candidates and hired an accountant, for example, the Navy also could hire from the Army's list. Currently, the Army picks from the top three candidates and the others must start the process anew, even for a similar position with a different agency in the same department.

Allowing "category hiring" to extend across departmental lines also is under consideration, but Berry said it would take legislation to implement that.

Obama also wants to get managers more involved in the process of deciding on new hires, rather than leaving the final approval to an agency's personnel office.

"The most important part of the process is the final interview," Berry said. "Those interviews really can't be done by HR professionals. They need to be done by hiring managers that are the closest to the job."

Agencies also will be required to tell applicants where they stand at four points in the process: when their application is received, when the applicant is deemed qualified or not, when the applicant is referred for an interview or not, and when the person is selected or not.

The changes are important not just for the mental health of job seekers, officials noted. They also will cut hiring costs and save taxpayer money.

"We need to make sure that every taxpayer dollar counts," said Jeffrey Zients, the administration's chief performance officer. "So there's a real urgency to improving the performance of government. . . . It is clear that the major component for improving performance is people."

The government has been fretting for years about the impending brain drain as the baby boomer generation retires. The GAO labeled hiring a high-risk area in a 2001 report and followed it up two years later with a study criticizing "inefficient or ineffective practices, including . . . unclear job announcements, the quality of certain applicant assessment tools [and] time-consuming panels to evaluate applicants."

The president has placed Berry and Zients in charge of the revamping, which is expected to take six months.

Applicants like Lisa Alfred, 46, said change would be welcomed. She applied for at least 20 federal jobs, but only one agency responded to her application.

"There are a lot of people out here hurting, and if there are jobs, we certainly want a crack at them," Alfred said. "Economically, it's not worth my time to apply for a federal job. Because in the time it takes me to apply for a federal job, I could apply for 20 private-sector jobs, or more."

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