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Agencies Could Be Passing Over Good Job Candidates

August 27, 2010

Federal agencies have room for improvement when it comes to assessing applicants for federal jobs, according to a new survey of government officials and observers.

The report, released Thursday by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and PDRI, a human resources consulting firm, found government does a poor job of evaluating applicants for federal positions. During discussions with seven focus groups and 20 additional interviews, representatives from veterans organizations, labor unions, the Office of Personnel Management and agency HR staffs, along with federal hiring managers, said a lack of collaboration among stakeholders is a key barrier to an effective assessment process.

Respondents said insufficient guidance from OPM, limited resources for training managers and a narrow focus on the formal assessment process also get in the way of hiring good candidates for federal jobs. Concentrating on writing clear position requirements, conducting reference checks and using internship programs effectively would improve applicant assessment, they said.

Josh Joseph, program manager for research at the Partnership, said the assessment process is particularly important in government because the private sector has other ways of adding to its applicant pool. If a candidate doesn’t make it past the federal assessment, he or she won’t be put in front of a hiring manager, he said.

“We often hear people say the hiring process is broken, but maybe that’s the wrong analogy,” he said. “I think what we’re seeing is more of a set of hiring tools that are out of balance. I would count the merit principles [like veterans preference] as doing a good job of what they’re supposed to do, but because the assessment system is weak it gets overwhelmed.”

During a panel discussion following the report’s release, federal officials said it is critical for HR professionals and hiring managers to understand the entire assessment process.

Brian Costlow, director of administration at the Energy Department, said HR staffs and managers must have a common set of expectations for how long it should take to publish vacancy announcements and conduct evaluations. “We can’t afford to wait months and months to get new people on board,” he said.

The report also found that information technology systems designed to track applicants and automate hiring are incompatible with one another and difficult to use, and data currently collected to determine whether assessments are effective aren’t useful.

A Partnership report released last week found federal HR staffs lack the skills necessary to implement new federal hiring practices. In addition, the chief human capital officers surveyed said growing demands on HR personnel to improve agency hiring operations and workforce management could make the situation worse.

President Obama in May issued a memorandum requiring changes to the federal hiring system, including eliminating knowledge, skills and abilities statements, and giving hiring managers more responsibility. Agencies also must fill positions more quickly and update candidates on the status of their application.

“We’re not pushing hard enough and fast enough to change the standards,” said Elizabeth Kolmstetter, deputy chief human capital officer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “We need to raise the bar and we need to have some investment to get our cadre up to the skill level they need. If they can’t cut it, we can’t just keep promoting them. We need a certain level of competency to address the needs that we have.”

Joseph said OPM has begun to provide the tools and support agencies require, but there is still work to be done as hiring reform is rolled out. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, he added, but agencies need assessment processes that work and are affordable.

“There’s not necessarily a high barrier in terms of spending tons of money to get solutions for those problems,” he said. “You find the best tools and figure out a good way to get those in hands of managers.”

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