Modify Federal Hiring Process Says GAO

The federal hiring process has numerous problems. OPM is taking action to try and fix these problems. GAO has recommendations for making it more efficient as the number of government hires is expected to continue increasing.

The number of new employees hired by the government is increasing and is expected to go up rapidly. It is also obvious that many, probably most, federal agencies would rather not use the existing hiring processes if they can avoid it.

It may surprise some readers to know how many new employees are hired by the government. The number of new hires increased substantially since the mid-1990s. The number went from about 50,000 employees in 1996 to over 143,000 employees in 2002.

In a new report, the GAO recognizes the nature of the problem. In its new report, it says: “There is widespread recognition that the current federal hiring process all too often does not meet the needs of agencies in achieving their missions, managers in filling positions with the right talent, and applicants for a timely, efficient, transparent, and merit-based process.” That isn’t news to human resources directors. Nearly all of the HR directors in the largest 24 agencies said the system isn’t very good when they were asked by GAO what they thought of the federal hiring process.

If you work for the government, you probably already know this. GAO says it is “widely recognized” that the federal hiring process is “cumbersome” and “hampers agencies’ ability to hire the people they need to achieve their agency goals and missions.” (If you want to see how one very well-qualified recent college graduate reacted to the hiring process, see the link to a Fedsmith article on the left hand side of this page. He gave up–and he was somewhat familiar with how the government hiring process works.)

The problems often involve time. In one agency, when the agency got around to hiring new employees, only one in twenty applicants was still interested because it had been so long since the announcement was issued. Agencies often lose out to private companies because it takes so long to process the paperwork for new employees. According to OPM, it takes 102 days for an agency to hire a new employee using the competitive process.

In other words, the system may be protecting the merit principles, but it doesn’t work if an agency actually wants to hire lots of people to fill its vacancies.

Moreover, the government’s pay system is complex and has been around a long time. The federal classification system was set up just after World War II. The result of using a system that does not match up with jobs actually being perfomed in government today is that agencies often don’t get the right people for the job and they may not be paid an appropriate amount for that job.

Where does the federal government’s hiring process work well? GAO studied five agencies that human capital experts said have done something significant to improve the hiring process. These five are the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of the Army, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and Forest Service.

These agencies are using computers (not done in HR offices in the 1940’s and 1950’s) to make the hiring process faster and less cumbersome. They are also taking actions that make the system more understandable to applicants that don’t understand government bureaucracy.

In its recommendations, GAO recommends automating the hiring process. As most large companies have discovered in hiring new employees, this can reduce bureaucracy. GAO also recommends showing off the “innovative and best practices of model agencies” so that these systems can be used in other federal organizations.

On a government-wide basis, GAO recommends that OPM take several actions.

• study how to simplify, streamline, and reform the classification process;

• assist agencies in automating their hiring processes;

• continue to assist agencies in making job announcements and Web postings more user friendly and effective;

• develop and help agencies develop improved hiring assessment tools; and

• review the effectiveness of the Outstanding Scholar and

Bilingual/Bicultural Luevano Consent Decree hiring authorities.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47