Edsels, Hula Hoops and Internal Government Promotions

The culture of government has changed in the past 20 years and these changes have impacted how Uncle Sam selects its higher graded employees. Federal employees in GS grades 12 – 15 used to be selected from within the existing workforce. But, just as the Edsel, the hula hoop. and the “company man” have faded from American life, so has the practice of always using internal promotions to fill higher graded positions.

Can the federal government compete in the marketplace for hiring new employees at GS grades 12 – 15?

Apparently it can. That, at least, is one conclusion of the Merit Systems Protection Board in its new report In Search of Highly Skilled Workers. Since most of these new hires were appointed to professional and administrative positions, the MSPB study was limited to these categories of employees.

One of the biggest attractions to government employment for new hires is often job security as working for the government is more secure than working for a private company where there are usually fewer appeal rights, fewer procedures for quickly terminating an employee and the necessity to remain profitable in order to avoid going out of business.

And job security is also important to more senior people. The MSPB cites job security as the most common motive for new upper level managers applying for a federal job from outside the existing federal workforce.

The federal government has been a traditional employer in many ways. The higher graded employees were often promoted from within the ranks of existing government workers. In fact, there were usually a number of employees to choose from as a typical federal employee started work at a young age and never left government employment until retirement.

Many companies used to be the same as the government in this respect. No doubt, that infuses employees with the culture of the organization. It also can result in blocking out new ideas or ways of conducting business.

Employment in America has changed. The "company man" that was a stereotype in the 1950’s has followed the hula hoop and the Edsel into our cultural history. While the federal government has been slower at making the change, the latest MSPB report shows that Uncle Sam’s civilian army has changed and recent hiring patterns reflect the change.

As many readers will recall, the management initiatives championed by Vice-President Al Gore in the 1990’s brought considerable change to government. Downsizing was the order of the day and many agencies reorganized and restructured to meet the requirements of the new Democratic regime that made a number of changes during their eight years in office. One result of the successful efforts to reduce the number of federal employees is that there are fewer people in the lower or mid-level positions.

Also, after the attacks of 9/11, the priorities of government changed with more emphasis on national security and defense. And, as has happened in the private sector, the increasing use of the internet has come to be part of daily life in government.

The combination of these changes had an impact on government hiring and these are reflected in the MSPB study.

In fiscal year 2005, the federal government hired more than 12,000 new upper level employees according to the MSPB report. This is 39 percent more than the 8,600 new upper level employees hired in FY 1990—the year preceding the downsizing and restructuring of the 1990’s.

Homeland security, national defense, and the need to deliver services through the use of technology were three of the many Government priorities in FY 2005. These priorities were mirrored in who was hired in the Government, the types of upper level positions filled, and the agencies that did most of the hiring.

Eighty percent of the new upper level employees were hired by 10 agencies, with the Department of Defense (DoD) and its major components accounting for about half of the new hires.

While many of the occupations represented by the new hires were in national defense or homeland security, the most common position filled was in information technology management. Many of those hired had related experience, either as a government contractor or with the military.

The MSPB study also found that competitive examining—the traditional method of filling competitive service jobs—decreased for hiring new upper level employees. This corresponded with the implementation of the Veterans Employment Opportunity Act of 1998 and, since it became effective in FY 2000, hiring new upper level employees under the Act increased from 6 percent of all the Government’s new upper level employees to 26 percent in FY 2005.

Of course, the immediate impact on many current federal employees is that there are fewer opportunities for advancement. It also means that many of the people who shape the culture of an agency are coming in from the private sector, the military or government contractors. How this has impacted the overall culture in agencies is not addressed in the MSPB report.

The MSPB concludes that agencies should not use restrictive selective factors "that do not enhance minimum qualification requirements to screen applicants" and that they should work to ensure that automated questionnaires do not become overwhelming to applicants—defeating the purpose of automation. The report also tells agencies to be more creative in their hiring strategy and to try and attract a diverse pool of job applicants.

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