Save the KSAs! A Former Human Resources Manager Defends a Trio of Old Friends

It has been suggested that KSAs should be eliminated, but the author disagrees.

Admittedly it doesn’t have quite the same emotional impact as “Save the Whales!” or “Save the Polar Bears!” but I think it’s a worthy cause for federal employees and hope to convince you.

There has been a good deal written recently about the state of the Federal hiring process, much of it negative, and deservedly so, in my opinion. But what really sparked my interest was a Federal article by Stephen Losey which was reprinted in on June 23. The title of that article was “OPM: Stop using KSAs when hiring.” 

In the article, Losey stated that “The Office of Personnel Management plans to ask agencies to stop requiring job applicants to fill out the time consuming questionnaires. In their place, agencies should rely on applicant resumes to decide whether someone is qualified and warrants a second look,” according to OPM Director John Berry. readers commented on the article in significant numbers, with very logical arguments on both sides of the Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSAs) issue. 

In a June 12 Government article, Alyssa Rosenberg and Elizabeth Newell captured the following quote from a memo to Federal agencies from new Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Peter Orszag: “The federal hiring process needs to be reformed.” The article went on to state that Orszag was critical of agency efforts to implement the end-to-end hiring roadmap announced by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). 

According to the article, Orszag and Berry expect agencies to accomplish four specific goals within the next six months. They want agencies to:

  1. Use the roadmap guidelines associated with the end-to-end hiring process to create an outline of their hiring processes.
  2. Revise the job descriptions for the 10 most common positions they hire for and rewrite them in plain language;
  3. Put in place plans to inform candidates through USAJobs about the status of their applications throughout the hiring process; and
  4. Demonstrate that they have involved hiring managers in every step of the process. 

I think that achieving all four of those goals will help improve the Federal recruitment process. 

More specifically, I believe that having agencies create an outline of their hiring processes using the end-to-end (E2E) roadmap would be useful for both hiring managers and potential candidates; I wasn’t sure if the second expectation was really that position descriptions themselves be revised or just the “Major Duties” statements that are typically used in vacancy announcements to explain to candidates what the job is about, but I would support the idea under either interpretation; I repeatedly hear complaints from candidates for Federal vacancies via USAJobs that they are not kept informed of the status of their applications, which I think discourages candidates from applying again to that agency, and perhaps to any Federal agency; and involving hiring managers in every step of the process may be the most important of the four goals. 

I have long advocated the involvement of the selecting official throughout the recruitment process, starting with the job analysis, in which the most important Knowledge, Skills and Abilities are identified from the position description and serve as the basis for the crediting plan. I believe that the selecting official should also be involved in the job interview process, and should personally conduct the very important background/ reference checks. In my experience, the job analysis has often been done by Human Resources (HR) rather than the selecting official, usually because the selecting official was either unavailable or uninterested in participating. Likewise, some selecting officials delegate the job interview process to others and the task of conducting background/ reference checks also falls to HR in many situations. 

The problem with that “hands off” approach, as I see it, is that the selecting official, not the HR specialist, will have to live with the results of a bad selection. In addition, if the selection is challenged by a non-selected candidate, the agency’s decision is far more likely to be supported before a third-party if the selecting official was heavily involved throughout the recruitment process, since that official presumably knows more about the position she/he is filling than does HR.

The article written by Ms. Rosenberg and Ms. Newell also referenced bipartisan legislation sponsored by Democratic Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii (my former boss) and Republican Senator George Voinovich of Ohio; they are, respectively, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee. The short title of that bill is the “Federal Hiring Process Improvement Act of 2009,” and its stated purpose is “To provide for improvements in the Federal hiring process…”

Ms. Rosenberg and Ms. Newell opined in the article that the “legislation goes further than the administration’s directive, and would eliminate Knowledge, Skills and Abilities statements from government job applications in favor of cover letters and resumes…”

I think that’s an arguable interpretation of the language in the bill, but I read it as leaving more “wiggle room.” The provision in question states that agencies will “not require lengthy writing requirements such as knowledge, skills, and ability essays as part of an initial application.” (emphasis added)

In a previous article, I echoed contributor Timothy Cannon and publisher/editor Ralph Smith in excoriating the Federal hiring process in general, and specifically, in my case, USAJobs. I noted at the time that I was helping develop some staffing training courses for the Navy, and had been out of the Federal government for years, so I decided to pick an existing HR vacancy and fill out an electronic application. I wasn’t planning to actually submit the application, but wanted to get to the point that I could have done so, which required me to respond to 35 supplemental questions. It could have been worse – Mr. Cannon’s friend had to answer 48 supplemental questions – but it was enough for me to raise the white flag.

The problem, in my view, is not with the concept of having candidates address KSAs, which I continue to think provide a great deal of useful information, but with requiring them to answer so many supplemental questions. That is the issue I think the bill is really targeting when it addresses “lengthy writing requirements.” 

So, I agree completely that those agencies which are forcing candidates to respond to a large number of supplemental questions – and in my case I found that there was much overlap between questions – are undoubtedly discouraging candidates from applying to their vacancies. That might not be so bad if the laborious process was only discouraging bad candidates, but I think it’s equally likely to be dissuading good candidates.

Is there a solution which would avoid throwing out the figurative baby with the bath water? I think so. When I was a Federal HR manager, we typically asked candidates to address 3-5 job-related KSAs. I am recommending that “back to the future” solution, which some Federal agencies are still using

I view it as a compromise measure which would provide HR specialists and selecting officials with good information about the extent to which candidates fit the KSAs determined by agency management to be critical to successful performance on the job, while not placing an unreasonable burden on applicants.     

I will attempt to illustrate my point by citing a current USAJobs vacancy announcement for a Program Specialist in the Food and Nutrition Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. The pertinent details of that announcement are as follows:

Program Specialist, GS-0301-09/11

Major Duties: “The position serves as a Program Specialist in the Mountain Plains Regional Office (MPRO) of the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). The incumbent in this position provides training and technical assistance to State and other cooperating agencies, evaluates administration and operation of programs, and assists in resolution of problems interfering with the delivery of program services…”


  • Ability to analyze organizations or operations using written materials and physical observations (in order to assess state and local agency activities).
  • Ability to understand, interpret and apply complex operating instructions (in order to provide guidance to state agencies and to monitor state agency operations.)
  • Ability to communicate in writing (in order to prepare reports, correspondence, and Food and Nutrition Service guidance materials.)
  • Ability to communicate orally (in order to explain Food and Nutrition Service Program requirements to State Agencies and Regional Staff, to present workshops and training sessions and to convey information to individuals and groups.)

You will note that there were only four KSAs in this case, and I found them to be directly related to the job to be filled. The agency told candidates what they were looking for in the way of KSAs, and then, in the parenthetical entries, explained why those abilities were important to this job. Excellent work!

When this system was widely used in the Federal government, many agencies placed limitations on the amount of space candidates could use, such as one page per KSA or even half a page. That allowed candidates to spell out how they believed they met each KSA without having to spend days completing their applications and/or forcing HR and selecting officials to spend days reading them.

Some current HR managers obviously don’t agree with my view of the importance of KSAs. 

For example, James McDermott, HR Director for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which has been one of the fastest growing Federal agencies in recent years, was quoted in a September 1, 2008, article by Brittany Ballenstedt as saying, “What I want is a resume, and then I want to put people to work. Get in and see them face to face and see if there’s a match. Going at somebody with the right questions is highly predictive of future success on the job.”

The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) weighed in on KSAs in a Special Study, “Attracting the Next Generation: A Look at Federal Entry-Level New Hires,” issued on February 8, 2008. 

In that report, MSPB stated that “Agency assessments tend to rely on ratings of training and experience (point method), which research has found are not good predictors of future performance. For instance, when evaluating resumes, narrative statements and questionnaires regarding work, education, training and personal history, agencies generally give applicants points for exposure to certain training or experience rather than evaluating the actual skills developed during that training or work experience. This approach not only lowers the validity of the assessment, but it also favors those who have a certain level of training or experience over those who may have higher potential -thereby benefiting older, more experienced applicants simply by virtue of their having worked more years.” 

While I have found MSPB’s Special Studies, including this one, to be of consistently high quality, I don’t share the agency’s concerns about rating KSAs, and would argue that a good crediting plan, derived from well-written, job-related KSAs, can be used to evaluate the actual skills developed as a result of the relevant experience, education and/or training. Nor would the crediting plan necessarily favor older employees or those with more experience. 

What I mean here is that an applicant with a broad range of experience over a relatively short period of time could score better than an employee with much more experience who has held the same job, or similar positions, for many years. 

The MSPB report went on to observe that “Training and experience assessments are particularly unsuitable for entry-level jobs.” I tend to agree with that conclusion and could see the possibility of using just resumes when recruiting for entry-level positions. 

I do share MSPB’s enthusiasm for structured job interviews. NRC HR Director McDermott is clearly comfortable with using resumes to determine which applicants to interview, and I have no problem with letting agencies decide to rely on resumes, perhaps augmented by a cover letter. However, when an agency is hiring above the entry-level, I would personally prefer determining which candidates to interview by applying an appropriate crediting plan to applicants who are at least minimally qualified. I believe candidates’ responses to KSAs are so valuable to HR and to selecting officials that agencies should have the option of continuing to use them as part of the hiring process. 

I laud the intent of the Akaka/Voinovich legislation and commend the ongoing efforts of both senators, as well as OMB Director Orszag and OPM Director Berry, to improve all aspects of Federal human resources management, and, in this case, the hiring process, which is clearly and significantly flawed. As noted earlier, I suspect that the intent of the senators’ bill is not to do away with KSAs but to prevent agencies from imposing lengthy essay requirements on candidates as part of an initial application. 

Asking applicants to address 3-5 KSAs, as outlined above, would not conflict with the intent of the proposed legislation, as I interpret it, which is to streamline and simplify the application process. As for those agencies which need a law or OPM regulation to tell them that 35 or 48 supplemental questions are too much, best of luck in recruiting the best and the brightest. I have a feeling that you’re going to need it.

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.