Extreme Hiring Makeover Gives Federal Hiring a Facelift

Three federal agencies recently revealed the results of a 10-month “Extreme Hiring Makeover” to improve the way they recruit and hire skilled employees, demonstrating how the project helped them streamline their hiring and improve the caliber of their job candidates.

Three federal agencies recently revealed the results of a 10-month "Extreme Hiring Makeover" to improve the way they recruit and hire skilled employees, demonstrating how the project helped them streamline their hiring and improve the caliber of their job candidates.

"The government doesn’t have to take a back seat to the private sector when it comes to bringing in the best and brightest employees. Just like a real makeover, with discipline and commitment, great changes are possible," said Marcia Marsh, Vice President for Government Transformation at the Partnership for Public Service, which facilitated the project.

Last September, the Partnership for Public Service and a team of leading recruitment experts launched the Extreme Hiring Makeover at three pilot agencies: the Department of Education; the National Nuclear Security Administration (Department of Energy), and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (Department of Health and Human Services). As part of the project, these agencies received pro-bono services and advice from Monster Government Solutions, ePredix, CPS Human Resource Services, AIRS, Brainbench, the Human Capital Institute and Korn/Ferry International.

The makeover was launched in response to one of the nation’s biggest crises: the federal government’s brain drain. More than half of all 1.9 million federal employees will be eligible to retire within the next five years, and one of the biggest impediments to attracting new employees is the federal hiring process. In some cases, federal job application instructions run 35 pages long. And applicants often have to wait six months to a year before getting a federal job offer.

While the makeover showed how federal agencies can make change happen, the project also highlighted the obstacles facing agencies as they try to sustain the improvements they made. The makeover experts made the following recommendations to help agencies "keep the pounds off":

Dare to Do Things Differently – Although the real Extreme Makeover shows focus on the external, this makeover pushed agencies to re-assess their internal practices and change from the inside out, from improving internal communications to eliminating unnecessary hiring steps that had crept into agencies’ processes over a period of years.

Invest in Proactive Targeting – All too often, agencies will post job vacancy announcements and assume that top-flight candidates will just apply. However, as seen in the private sector, actively recruiting candidates can enhance the quality and quantity of applicants. All three pilot agencies benefited from reaching out and marketing their job openings to candidates who may not regularly seek government employment, expanding the talent pool to new and diverse sources.

Put the Hiring Manager in the Driver’s Seat – In many agencies, walls have been built between the hiring managers and the human resources office. Hiring activities are often conducted by third parties without a stake in the selection, or a real understanding of the type of candidate needed. As a result, managers are not primarily accountable for hiring the way they are in high-performing organizations. Government can learn a lesson from the private sector in this regard, as the leaders of many successful companies spend much of their personal time engaged in seeking out top-tier candidates.

Following are summaries of the results for each of the Extreme Hiring Makeover agencies:

The Department of Education

"Fixing the Hiring Process" is one of the top priorities in the Department of Education’s 2004 Strategic Human Capital Plan. Its management team was already hard at work in enhancing their technology and building new tools when the Extreme Hiring Makeover came along, creating the perfect opportunity to join forces.

Since the Department was already handling the heavy lifting around technology, the "process" was a top priority for the makeover team. The team, which consisted of human resources specialists, hiring managers and executive officers, wanted to expedite the hiring process and improve the number of qualified candidates from which to choose – so they launched a deep dive into the process. Since the Department consists of multiple program offices the initial efforts centered on the largest: Federal Student Aid (FSA). FSA employs about 25 percent of the agency’s total workforce and has been granted special management flexibilities by Congress as a Performance Based Organization.

After conducting interviews and focus groups with senior leaders, hiring managers, new hires, and others, the makeover team developed a detailed "process map" that reflected every activity, requirement and hand-off associated with FSA’s hiring process. The map shed light on why the process took so long: it consisted of 114 steps. In addition, the process did not deliver enough highly qualified candidates to managers.

Simply looking at a flow chart of the process created a much greater understanding among leaders, hiring managers and their HR colleagues about their shared roles in hiring. Additionally, it pointed out a key flaw that exists in most organizations: no single executive owned the "end to end" process. While the HR department owned a major component of hiring, managers set the requirements and made the ultimate selections.

To fix the process, an owner is needed. For FSA, the chief operating officer accepted that challenge, and for the department, the chief human capital officer signed on. The streamlined process resulted in: 1) Consolidating the flow of information between the hiring manager and the HR specialist in a single, strategic conversation at the beginning of the hiring process rather than the piecemeal communications throughout the process; 2) Replacing e-mail chains with meetings that engage all stakeholders, cutting dozens of steps from the process; and 3) Asking senior managers to prepare, and follow, annual staffing plans outlining the number and type of employees they plan to hire over the course of a year, as well as budget justifications for those hires.

At the end of their process, the team was able to eliminate more than 50 percent of unnecessary internal management activities, cutting its hiring process from 114 to 53 steps – promising more improvements to come.

To capitalize on their progress, the team shared their new process with representatives from across the department in a three day "Boot Camp" in June, which received strong support. The new tools and process will be tested over the balance of the summer and early fall.

The National Nuclear Security Administration

Talent shortages in the scientific and technical communities pose a big problem for all job sectors, but are critical for the nation’s nuclear programs and security. As a new organization, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) lacked a clear identity or "brand." Job postings intended to recruit for highly specialized jobs yielded meager results in terms of number and quality of applicants. Not only did NNSA lack a positive image as an employer, but its traditional job announcements tended to contain long, detailed descriptions of the responsibilities of the job to be filled, but too little about the attractiveness of NNSA as an employer.

To fix the problem, the makeover team focused on better marketing through well-crafted job announcements and an eye-catching ad campaign. The new posting started off with a description of why NNSA is a great place to work, with a user-friendly, navigable format using simpler language. The web-based posting also included photos of the unique work environment at NNSA that would better appeal to the scientists and engineers it sought. The photos and some of the language developed for the posting were subsequently used as the basis for a print ad touting NNSA as an employer of choice. The results were dramatic.

NNSA took that branding and was off and running with a new talent campaign – their Future Leaders program. With great messages and materials in hand, NNSA recruiters hired a new class of 30 graduates who will develop their skills through a special series of training and job assignments. Beyond the exciting career challenges and development, the graduates received a full range of flexibilities to entice them to come – student loan repayments, signing bonuses, relocation assistance and more.

The leadership team at NNSA means business when it comes to talent. Next on their docket is an Employer of Choice initiative to ensure that their great talent stays and thrives at the agency.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

Faced with increasingly complex staffing requirements driven by the Medicare Modernization Act, it became clear that the status quo would not meet the needs of the CMS of the future. CMS had to attract new talent and find a way to handle the volume of applicants, while ensuring great quality. Recognizing the need for improvement to the hiring process, CMS leadership eagerly embraced this project. As result of the efforts of the EHM team, CMS implemented several "quick fixes" to the hiring process. This included modifying the vacancy announcements to better market the agency and streamlining the hiring process to eliminate redundancies and unnecessary handoffs. CMS also developed an implementation plan to apply the Extreme Hiring Makeover throughout the agency.

The new hiring process will include an agency-wide strategic hiring plan, modified vacancy announcements, targeted recruitment, special applicant assessments, category rating, structured interviews and effective reference checks. The project plan includes implementing the various improvements through a carefully planned pilot that runs through the fall of 2005, with plans to apply the lessons learned from this pilot before implementing the makeover across the entire agency.

In addition, the makeover team created a demonstration hiring project within CMS’s Families and Children’s Health Programs Group, in the Center for Medicaid State Operations, to test-drive new hiring strategies that could be used more broadly throughout the entire agency. The team pursued an active marketing strategy and phased assessment approach in their efforts to hire health insurance specialists. Managers were encouraged to get more involved in the front end of the hiring process, outlining the specific skills needed for each job and creating pre-screening questions before hiring started. The team targeted potential employees by using the internet to identify skilled candidates from multiple job boards, ultimately attracting more than 200 applicants in the first round. The average number of applicants for similar positions within the Department was about 50. Of this group, 33 applicants were a direct result of the team’s proactive recruiting efforts.

The team also required applicants to complete a questionnaire in QuickHire, a hiring system from Monster Government Solutions that helps federal agencies screen job applicants. This weeded out about 15% of applicants, a percentage significantly higher than other efforts the agency had conducted in the past. The remaining applicants were then required to complete an online skills test and were ranked based on the scores from the survey and the test. Using category rating, the hiring manager was presented with 24 candidates after this process and, after an additional assessment, hired seven people – the first within 22 business days of closing the job announcement – and was extremely pleased with the caliber of the candidates. The manager who participated in this pilot applied lessons learned from this experience and was very successful in identifying high quality candidates for another recruitment effort.