On most days, the government lists about 17,000 job openings on its Internet site. But it takes a hardy soul to complete a federal job application.

For example, take the job posting for a financial program specialist in the Treasury Department's Financial Management Service. It looks pretty good: a salary ranging from $27,597 to $44,430, depending on education and experience. There are "many vacancies" in the Washington area, the posting says.

But then it gets more complicated and tedious.

The instructions run 35 pages. To apply, you must submit a resume. To get a higher-paying grade, you also need to send in college transcripts. Veterans need to submit proof of their military service.

And, by the way, you have to answer 156 "occupational questions."

To be sure, agency officials have legal and other reasons for asking so many questions of people they have never met. But most civil service experts agree that the government's approach discourages people from seeking federal employment and, when they do, often fails to identify the best-qualified applicants.

The House civil service subcommittee will take up the issue of federal hiring at a hearing in Chicago tomorrow. Rep. Jo Ann S. Davis (R-Va.), the subcommittee chairman, described the federal hiring process as "a long and winding road. The road is so long and winding that the government misses out on some of the best and brightest applicants."

Numerous job applicants complain that they wait six months to a year before getting a federal job offer and often receive little or no feedback on their applications.

Kay Coles James, director of the Office of Personnel Management, agrees that the hiring process needs a fix. "If you talk to anyone applying for a job, they will say the process is confusing, that it is not timely, that they don't know how to get accurate information on where they are in the process," she said in an interview.

James said she stayed up late one night surfing the federal employment Web site, USAJobs (www.usajobs.opm.gov), and found job listings that were difficult to understand. "If I don't know what the job is, then how are you expecting someone out in the real world to?" she said.

As the president's chief civil service adviser, James has spent much of the last two years looking for ways to overhaul the government's hiring process. Fixing it may be crucial to the government's long-term performance, in part because about half of the federal workforce is eligible for regular and early retirement. Hiring also has taken on some urgency because some agencies are staffing up to deal with terrorist threats to homeland security.

(In fiscal 2003, OPM spokesman Mike Orenstein said, the government hired 88,293 full-time employees. About a third of them were hired by the Defense Department.)

James has revamped and installed a more powerful search engine in USAJobs. She sent federal personnel officials a top 10 list of "things we can do right now," such as cutting down on red tape in hiring. She has urged agencies to reduce their hiring time to 45 days or less.

In one instance, James said, she personally knew a qualified applicant who should have been interviewed for a federal job but wasn't because she did not use "certain key words" needed to catch the attention of officials who screen resumes.

"If we have a process in place that is so mysterious that good people can't get through it, we are the problem, not the applicant," she said.

Although Congress has given agencies more leeway in how they hire, it appears that agencies are moving slowly to take advantage of it. An OPM report released Friday said that "federal agencies have yet to improve the hiring process by using the tools and flexibilities available."

Dan Blair, the OPM deputy director who has been working with James on ways to speed federal hiring, said he has urged agencies to use new hiring methods, which allow for broader pools of applicants to be considered and permit faster hiring for crucial positions.

"We haven't made as much progress as I would like to see," Blair said. "I don't want to hear any more horror stories about good candidates getting the short shrift through the system. And that is something that I will continue to work on and improve."

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com