When someone lands a civil-service job, the first question that many people have is "Who did he know?" For while the system officially requires job-seekers to follow rigid procedures, including filling out multitudinous forms, taking tests and waiting inteminably, many individuals circumvent steps and find jobs through friends, relatives and acquaintances.
Now that Congress and the Civil Serivce Commission have increased incentives for those whithin the system, through the recently enacted Civil Service Reform Act, they should address the complementary task of improving the process by which individuals get into the civil service.
The present "official" system is cumbersome and anarchronistic. While set up to prevent patronage, it more effectively prevents people without connections and those whom the government is most anxious to recruit-minorities, women, and those from outside the Washington area-from ever hearing abour job vacancies. It puts Herculean obstacles in the way of both job-seekers and federal employers with jobs to fill.
My own experiences as an on-and-off federal worker and job-hunter over the past 10 years should sound familiar to anyone who has confronted the system. I first sought a federal job shortly after graduating from college. A newcomer to Washington, I played by the rules, took the approriate test, waited a long time-and was rewarded with a query about a post as bowling supervisor at a local Air Force base, a career for which my degree in history had ill prepared me. A stern form letter warned that failure to respond to the inquiry would make me ineligible for consideration for other civil-service jobs.
My second encounter came as a graduate student applying for a summer job. After a mass mailing of resumes and 171s to approriate agencies, I received a job offer-only one-from an agency where a relative happened to work. I would gladly have withstood charges of nepotism and accepted the job had its starting date not preceded the letter by a week.
My one success came after I had learned to disregard all rules. Hearing of a vacancy through a friend, I was hired for a position in a new agency, although there was a civil-service hiring freeze. As surprised as I was to land a job by this route, I realized after working at the agency for a few months that almost every employee, from clerics to supergrades, had heard about his position through someone at the agency.
While my own skirmishes with the civil service date back a few years, the rules for entry into the system have not changed nor has the reality that entry through those formal, supposedly impartial channels is very hard.
What is needed is something as unrevolutionary as an easily accessible data bank of federal jobs. Individuals who believe themselves qualified could then apply for specific jobs and be evaluated on a merit basis.Indeed, the U.S. Employment Service maintains such a data bank, but civil-service jobs rarely appear on it. It is a typical government Catch 22 that many federal personnell people subscribe to private job newsletters to find out about vacancies within their own agency.
Furthermore, the government should advertise in newspapers and journals to attract qualified individuals. I find it ironic that federal authorities often require private industry to advertise vacancies to comply with affirmative-action guidelines, but the agencies rarely utilize those procedures themselves. While the Civil Service Reform Act charges each agency with conducting minority recruitment, an effective program is virtually impossible using present hiring practices.
While the spirit of reform is alive at the Civil Service Commssion and the White House, the present civil-service hiring system should be disassembled and replaced with a simple and workable alternative.