Federal Diary by Joe Davidson

President Obama's hiring reforms draw applause at personnel agency

Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan displays a flow chart showing the old federal hiring system, which included more than 40 steps. President Obama has ordered the process to be streamlined.
Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan displays a flow chart showing the old federal hiring system, which included more than 40 steps. President Obama has ordered the process to be streamlined. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

To get an idea of how bad the federal hiring process is, consider that Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry drew a rousing ovation Tuesday with these simple announcements:

"We are switching to résumés."

And: "The president is eliminating knowledge, skills and abilities essays as an initial recruitment requirement of the federal government."

This might seem like ho-hum stuff to the average person, but to those who packed the OPM auditorium for Berry's announcements, the changes represent a significant attempt to fix a system that takes too long and serves no one well.

President Obama wants the government to cut its hiring time -- from when a vacancy is announced until a person is hired -- to 80 days. Some agencies now take as long as 200 days. The president has also ordered federal agencies "to overhaul the way they recruit and hire," saying that "the complexity and inefficiency of today's federal hiring process deters many highly qualified individuals from seeking and obtaining jobs in the federal government."

In a presidential memorandum signed Tuesday, Obama instructed agency heads to take a series of actions by Nov. 1. They include getting rid of essay-style questions for people first submitting applications for federal jobs. Instead of writing essays -- in which candidates describe their knowledge, skills and abilities -- and filling out long, hard-to-understand forms, applicants will be allowed to submit cover letters and résumés or complete "simple, plain language applications."

It says something about the state of government communications when the president has to order officials to use plain language.

Beyond making things easier for job candidates, improved hiring practices will result in more efficient and effective government, and that means better use of taxpayer dollars, said Jeffrey Zients, Obama's chief performance officer. "We have to get the right people," he added. But he complained that government too often doesn't focus on human resources issues, and that has caused many good candidates to seek employment elsewhere.

One byproduct of this presidential action is the close working relationship that has developed between the OPM and the Office of Management and Budget, because of the way Berry and Zients, who also is deputy OMB director for management, clicked. In four decades of dealing with federal personnel issues, "I don't recall seeing OMB and OPM work so closely together on HR issues," said John Palguta, vice president of the Partnership for Public Service. "It's simply not been a priority for OMB" until now, he added.

The only "weak link" Palguta found in the president's plan is ensuring that agencies implement it. The federal hiring process is fragmented among many departments, and for some of them, the changes Obama wants represent a "major retooling," Palguta said.

One item the memorandum does not cover is the length of an application period. Job hopefuls have complained that some periods are so short that they seem designed to protect positions for favorite candidates.

Though the American Federation of Government Employees welcomed the president's memorandum, the union was cautious about its call for agencies to use "category rating" in hiring rather than the "rule of three." Currently, managers hire from the top three candidates, and those not chosen must start from the beginning if they want to apply to a different agency. Under the category rating plan, an agency may hire from the entire list of qualified candidates. Then another agency in the same department could hire from that same list.

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