The Federal Hiring Lottery: It May Be Fair But Is It Effective?

How does one go about getting a federal job today? Does it ensure the best people possible work for the federal government?

Outside of human resources offices or managers interested in filling vacancies, those in government usually don’t focus on how new federal employees get hired.

But the hiring process will determine who will be spending the trillions of dollars spent by the federal government. Government is huge and has an impact on all Americans. We should, as President Kennedy noted decades ago, want to have the best and brightest working for America. That goal has been shoved aside and ignored.

Getting a government job used to be fairly straight-forward. Those interested in a government career took a test. Those that got the best scores got hired. Experts in the field said there was a correlation between those with high test scores and achieving success in a government career. Veterans got extra points for having served in the military.

Moreover, federal jobs were hard to get. It was competitive. Scoring high on the test was not an assurance of getting a job and some potential applicants took the test several times to learn how the test process worked and tried to improve their scores. Having entered the government through this system (and having taken the entrance exam several times to get to the top of the hiring list), I was impressed with the ability of those fellow feds I met and worked with who had to go through the same system.

The process of testing for most government jobs was dropped about 25 years ago as there was some evidence of cultural bias in the testing process. Many of the people who entered government service as a result of this system are now in senior positions. Most of these people will be leaving government service very soon.

How does one go about getting a government job today and does the hiring process ensure that Uncle Sam gets the highest quality employees possible?

One of the best ways to get a government job today, according to several HR directors I spoke with, is through the outstanding scholars program. A number of agencies use this authority to hire new employees into various positions. A candidate with a grade average of 3.5 or higher may be able to get a government job.

Does a high grade point average mean the person is qualified for working for Uncle Sam? As an employer, I hired several graduates from small colleges with excellent grades. My experience was that the grade point average of these graduates was virtually meaningless.

I don’t know what is required to get a high grade point average in college today. Many of the new hires with good grades were very good. But, from having hired several of these former students, the ability to spell, write and comprehend a complex paragraph was obviously not a requirement. In effect, using a grade point average as an indicator of success was meaningless as an indicator of how competent a new employee would be on the job. This meaningless indicator is what is now used for filling many federal jobs. Perhaps it is fair, but if the goal is to hire the best possible people, this system misses the mark.

According to the latest MSPB newsletter, some agencies recognize this problem and are now moving out to remedy the problem of hiring new federal employees. The Departments of Defense and Homeland Security may create new systems for hiring employees that will meet their needs more than the current system–whatever that current system may be today in most agencies.

Kudos to Steve Nelson, Director of Policy and Evaluation at the MSPB for highlighting the problem in the latest issue in the June issue of MSPB’s Issues of Merit newsletter.

Where there is a vacuum, someone or something will step in to fill it. Right now, there is a vacuum in the federal hiring process. The lack of any coordinated government-wide hiring process will harm the quality of the civil service system. We need the best possible people who make judgments on the trillions of dollars the federal government will be spending. Steve Nelson has pointed out the problem, offered several suggestions for improving the problem, but says he does not have the ultimate solution to the problem.

It seems that in our effort to be as fair as possible to everyone, we are creating more problems than we solved in the federal hiring process. Let’s hope that government leaders and administrators work to put a new system in place that enables the government to hire the best people possible. We clearly do not have that system in place now.

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