Obama's federal hiring reform efforts 'moving in right direction, OPM director says

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010; 8:09 PM

It was one of those uniquely Washington moments.

A beauty queen led a toast Monday to improvements in the federal hiring process. Let's hail the new and bid farewell to the old, said Jen Corey, Miss D.C. 2009.

In a statement issued before the toast, John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, explained the reason that government geeks and those who want to be one are celebrating.

"Today is an important milestone for the hiring reform we need to best serve and protect the American people," he said. "Six months ago, President Obama directed all agencies to hire based on resumes, eliminate KSA essays, and reduce time to hire. We've made substantial progress, and we're making sure everyone knows that there's no turning back."

Berry is almost always a cheerleader. Nonetheless, his view that government hiring is better than it was a few months ago is shared by many inside and outside of government, although no one claims the job is done.

That includes Berry, who said Uncle Sam has not yet reached his goal of a hiring process that takes 80 days, instead of the 200 that was sometimes the case.

"We're not hitting it yet," he said after the toast and during a reception sponsored by the Center for Human Capital Innovation. "But we're moving in the right direction."

The General Services Administration, for example, has reduced its average hiring period from 141 days, at the end of 2009, to 89 days now, according to Gail Lovelace, the agency's chief human capital officer.

"What you measure, people pay attention to," she said at an Excellence in Government conference at the Ronald Reagan Building before the reception.

GSA recently had a "hiring blitz" during which it needed to sign up 200 people in two months, "and we did it," Lovelace said with pride.

Jeff Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, gave the conference some indication of the government's overall progress. About 81 percent of the government's job descriptions are now short, he said; only 19 percent were before the overhaul. Previously, announcements might exceed 100 pages.

More than two-thirds of the agencies do not now require essays as part of the initial application, according to Zients. About 60 percent had that requirement.

Obama set the Nov. 1 deadline for the hiring overhaul when he issued his May 11 "Presidential Memorandum - Improving the Federal Recruitment and Hiring Process." It called on agencies to:

- "Eliminate any requirement that applicants respond to essay-style questions when submitting their initial application materials for any Federal job"

- "Allow individuals to apply for Federal employment by submitting resumes and cover letters or completing simple, plain language applications"

- "Provide for selection from among a larger number of qualified applicants by using the 'category rating' approach . . . rather than the 'rule of 3' approach, under which managers may only select from among the three highest scoring applicants."

The essay-style questions, better known as KSAs, were a dreaded part of the federal application process for job seekers who hated the thought of writing about their knowledge, skills and abilities. It was such a daunting task that some applicants hired consultants to help them write the essays, which potentially diminished their value as a tool to evaluate candidates.

Yet, managers did like the essays, said Allan Schweyer, the principal of the Center for Human Capital Innovation, a consulting company that works with the government on personnel issues. Essays provided much information that allowed supervisors to "learn a lot about the candidates," Schweyer said.

Using resumes rather than KSAs represents more than a change in tactics. The move from an essay-based application process is a significant cultural shift that might not be easy, even for managers who support reform.

"There is very little reluctance" to reform, said Tim McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that studies federal workplace issues and has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post. "But it's teaching an old dog new tricks."

OPM, he added, put a lot of effort into teaching the new tricks of federal hiring, by holding more than 100 events to discuss and teach what the memorandum required.

Replacing the "rule of three" with a category rating system is a sore point with federal employee unions. During a congressional hearing just days after Obama signed the memo, Colleen M. Kelley told a House panel that the rule of three "provides a merit-based, objective and transparent selection process."

Under the rule, managers had to hire from among the top three candidates on a list. If those not chosen wanted a federal job with a different agency, they had to start the long and difficult process from the beginning.

With category ratings, managers may chose from a broader list that includes anyone qualified for the position. Other agencies in the same department also may hire from that broader list, making it more efficient for managers and applicants.

OPM attempted to improve the hiring process in the Bush administration, but that effort went nowhere. It came near the end of the President George W. Bush's term, and many agencies basically ignored OPM's directions.

The current drive has Obama's stamp of approval and the force of the OMB behind OPM's leadership.

"The most important thing," said Linda Springer, an OPM director under Bush, "is there is real momentum and there is time for this team to do it this time."


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