Applying for Federal Employment: Trying to Survive “The Perfect Storm”

The federal job application process is encountering a “Perfect Storm” of events that may make it difficult to attract new talent.

(Editor’s Note: This is part I of a two-part article.)

In the fact-based 2000 movie, “The Perfect Storm,” George Clooney and his brave crew were swallowed up by an unprecedented combination of storms in the North Atlantic. That film came to mind after I read the excellent recent articles “A Bad Recipe: The Irish Burgoo Vacancy Announcement,” by Timothy W. Cannon; and “So Now We Know There’s a Problem – What’s the Solution?,” by Ralph Smith. In this case, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and other Federal agencies have inadvertently created their own “perfect storm” for Federal job applicants.

Both articles spoke to the problems the authors see in agency hiring policies and practices and raised thought-provoking questions. As Ralph noted, Timothy Cannon’s article struck a responsive chord. He used a friend’s frustration with an electronic Human Resources (HR) vacancy announcement at the Department of Homeland Security to illustrate how complicated the “new and improved” on-line vacancy announcement process can be.

About a year ago, when I was developing some staffing course material, I went into the USAJobs site as an experiment to see if I could work my way through the application process without undue difficulty, figuring that if I could do it anyone could. I could not believe how difficult and time-consuming it was, and gave up well short of completing an on-line application. At that point I figured it was most likely “operator error” on the part of an admitted technophobe – me.

But over the last couple of months I have filled out (or attempted) several on-line applications and, based on that experience, I would echo everything that Timothy Cannon stated in his article, and then some. My problems actually started earlier – with the “Search Jobs” page. For example, after finding a vacancy announcement one day, I could not bring it up again during the open period. I tried, unsuccessfully, to find it by “Location Search,” by “Job Category Search,” by “Applicant Eligibility,” and by “Date.” I couldn’t even find it by plugging the vacancy announcement number into the “Keyword Search” block!

When I did finally apply for a vacancy on-line, I was more fortunate than Mr. Cannon’s friend – I had to address “only” 35 supplemental questions to her 48. I did encounter the same kind of duplication that Timothy Cannon documented, so I started several narratives with the phrase, “As I noted above under question…” By the time I had staggered through the whole list, at a cost of many hours, the application process had not only discouraged me from ever applying again but had taken a pretty good whack out of my will to live!

What in the world are these agencies – and OPM – thinking of?

Ralph’s article noted how the task of writing vacancy announcements has gone from bad to worse and has resulted in intimidating potential candidates.

My recent experience with USAJobs supports that observation–and I spent more than 26 years in HR with the Federal government. If I was ready to take a hammer to my computer screen, how willing would someone from outside the system be to slog their way through the process?

As of January 1, 1995, Federal agencies could no longer require the SF-171, Application for Federal Employment, as the only acceptable application form. Ralph’s article laments the demise of the SF-171, and, having worked with that document throughout my Federal career, I understand that sentiment. I, too, was skeptical of the change, but I thought there was some merit to the argument that the government had to modernize its application process and that many of the people were more comfortable using a resume. By making the SF-171 optional, the Federal government was willing to give up consistency in exchange for flexibility, which it hoped to use to ease the recruitment process.

Looking back at the 12 years since then, it is easy to confirm that the Federal government has lost the consistency it had enjoyed with the SF-171. It is far more difficult to pinpoint what it has gained.

Ralph’s article cited the Merit Systems Protection Board’s (MSPB) Special Report, “Reforming Federal Hiring: Beyond Faster and Cheaper.” In that report, MSPB asked the salient question “Is the Federal hiring system broken?” The agency’s answer: “Many applicants, hiring managers, and Federal HR professionals would shout out a resounding ‘yes’ to this question. They would say that the hiring process is confusing, takes too long, and is a barrier to attracting and retaining high-quality candidates.”

When I think of automating paper processes, I think in terms of those processes being made easier to use. In this case, OPM has, in an effort to streamline the process of applying for Federal jobs by automating it, arguably managed to make it far more complicated and burdensome for both internal and outside applicants. This is particularly true when agencies require applicants to provide voluminous information.

As Timothy Cannon’s article, and the many responses to it, demonstrates, many current Federal employees are frustrated by the USAJobs application process, while many people from outside the Federal system find the application process impenetrable.

But, as Ralph’s article noted, the cumbersome application process is not the only employment-related problem; many current Federal employees feel that employment decisions in their agencies are based on favoritism, not merit. If the Federal government is not able to make the application process more “user-friendly” and to convince its own employees that merit is THE key factor in making selections, it is unlikely to be competitive in attracting and retaining top talent in the future.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.