Tom Shoop, editor of Government Executive magazine, moderated a panel on “Rethinking Federal Hiring” at a conference Monday and asked federal officials in the audience whether hiring times had improved or not.

It was about even.

Then he asked whether the quality of applicants is going up or down.

It wasn’t close. Down won, 75 to 25 percent by Shoop’s estimate.

This was a totally unscientific survey. But it is another indication that Uncle Sam’s hiring process apparently is getting faster, but not necessarily better, at least in terms of the hires it produces.

Other indications: At a Senate hearing last month, experts who praised an executive order and presidential memorandum on hiring reform also described a gateway to government that seems to have a “no trespassing” sign instead of a welcome mat.

Laurel McFarland, executive director of the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration, spoke of “abysmal graduate students’ experience with,” Uncle Sam’s online recruiting tool.

David T. Ellwood, dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said, “Any sizable private business that hired employees in the way the federal government does would have gone out of business long ago.”

And the 2010 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey said, “Less than half [46 percent] of the employees believe their work units are finding people with the skills they need.” That finding did not improve from the previous survey.

It’s easy to point fingers at the Office of Personnel Management for hiring problems, as officials at other agencies sometimes do. “We like to blame OPM,” one audience member admitted.

But perhaps they ought to look in the mirror.

After all, it is OPM, with the strong support of the Office of Management and Budget and a president who understands the need for reform, that is implementing the executive order and the presidential memorandum. Important progress has been made.

To make sure that’s not overlooked, the OPM Web site points to achievements made since May 2010 when “President Obama launched the largest reform of the Federal hiring process in over 30 years.”

Among the accomplishments OPM cites:

l 86 percent of job announcements are written in plain language, up from 55 percent

l 66 percent of the announcements are two to three pages long; only 24 percent were before hiring reform

l 92 percent of job announcements allow people to apply with a resume, compared with 39 percent previously

l 97 percent “are free of the essay questions that used to haunt applicants,” up from 39 percent

l 26 days have been cut from the average time to hire.

Those figures come during a time of increasing interest in federal employment. Applications on are up 500 percent over the past four years, Angela Bailey, OPM’s deputy associate director for recruitment and hiring, told the conference, which was sponsored by the Government Executive Media Group. Last year, 21.6 million people applied for federal jobs, or about 75 people for each opening.

In response to criticism about federal hiring, Bailey, who can be refreshingly candid for a government official when not restrained by hovering public affairs staffers, made it clear that it is the responsibility of the agencies to write more realistic job announcements and to better assess job candidates. That’s when “you’ll have a great match of speed and quality,” said Bailey, whose family calls her the “queen of hiring reform.”

OPM provides lots of advice and guidance, she added, but agencies “can take it or leave it for the most part.” Hiring managers, she said, “need to take back control.”

Because of the OMB muscle provided by the Obama White House, agencies probably take more of OPM’s advice now than under the administration of President George W. Bush, when OPM also tried to speed the hiring process. But progress is uneven.

Consider the situation at the Agency for International Development. Linda M. Hill, an agency administrative officer, told of the agency taking eight months to fill an opening. “I feel frustrated with my own agency,” she said after the session. “It still takes a long time.”

A big problem, she said, is poorly written job descriptions, which have resulted in an interior designer and a banker applying for a secretary’s job.

“We get a lot of applicants that are unqualified,” she said, “not qualified at all.”

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