Federal Hiring Reform: It Didn’t Work Before But Let’s Try Again

OPM is about to cancel the central hiring registry it started earlier this year. Is this the same system that OPM canceled in 1994 because it was not working?

History has a way of repeating itself, particularly with problems as intractable as changing the speed and efficiency of the federal hiring process.

Back in 1994, the director of the Office of Personnel Management, Jim King, was concerned about the unwieldy nature of the federal hiring process. That may sound familiar since the current OPM director, John Berry, has the same concerns about the federal hiring process.

As one way to fix the problem, OPM issued a press release in 1994 that announced the “elimination of two barriers to federal hiring at the entry-level for professional and administrative occupations.” According to the OPM press release: “Ridding our system of obstacles will make it easier on job applicants, while allowing government to expedite the hiring of employees in professional and administrative occupations who provide service that the American public demands and deserves.”

That approach was consistent with the National Performance Review. This was an effort by the Clinton administration to create a government that “works better and costs less” using this philosophy as explained by Vice-President Al Gore: “Effective, entrepreneurial governments cast aside red tape,
shifting from systems in which people are accountable for following rules to systems in which they are accountable for achieving results. They streamline their budget, personnel, and procurement systems—liberating organizations to pursue their missions. They reorient their control systems to prevent problems rather than simply punish those who make mistakes. They strip away unnecessary layers of regulation that stifle innovation. And they deregulate organizations that depend upon them for funding,
such as lower levels of government.”

One of the barriers to be eliminated: the “central lists” of applicants maintained by OPM and used to refer job candidates to agencies needing to fill entry-level jobs.

Forwarding to 2010, how will the federal hiring process—still considered to be unwieldly, cumbersome and slow despite the OPM reforms under the Clinton administration, growing use the internet and USAJobs—be repaired to work faster and more efficiently?

In April 2010, OPM announced that it was establishing a central hiring registry to bring new federal employees into the workforce. (See Changing the Federal Hiring Process) The advantages were obvious.

  • Streamlined job opportunity announcements
  • Category rating procedures – a wider range of candidates from which to select
  • Online, unproctored assessment tools
  • OPM maintenance – includes referring high quality candidates, responding to applicant inquiries, removing unavailable candidates, etc. Notification to applicants will be sent at all four applicant communication touch points.
  • Referral of names from these registers at no cost to agencies.

In a memo to human resources offices, OPM said: “Please consider requesting certificates as soon as possible, as unnecessary delay may frustrate the applicants. We feel it is a great opportunity for agencies to address some of their current staffing challenges.”

There was no reference to the 1994 OPM action in the press release and the new initiative to fix the slow, cumbersome federal hiring process sounded great although it was a move toward more centralization of government administration. There are a number of other aspects of the current OPM effort to reform the federal hiring process and the agency has set up a portion of its website devoted to its efforts.

But, several months later,  it appears that OPM may end the use of centralized hiring registers. In the first few months of the centralized hiring register program, agencies have only hired 71 of about 106,000 qualified job candidates through the centralized register program according to Federal Times.

OPM is studying the results of the program to find out why agencies are not using the registers and work only with agencies that have expressed an interest in using the OPM registers.

Agencies like to maintain control of their own systems and turning that over to a central agency means they lose that control and are left to rely on the competence and efficiency of OPM. One problem may be that agencies do not have that confidence and they would rather deal with their own problems in hiring instead of trying to solve the ones that crop up within the OPM bureaucracy and are beyond the control of each agency.

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