What’s Wrong With the Federal Hiring Process?

The author outlines several key problems he sees with the federal hiring process.

Let’s see a show of hands. Who thinks the federal hiring process works well? Who thinks it is designed to always get the best person for the job? Who thinks any successful company would choose its talent the way the government does?

When I ask those questions to groups of federal employees or job applicants, it is rare to see any hands go up. I honestly do not know anyone who says federal hiring practices are well-designed or operate smoothly. They are unnecessarily complicated, time-consuming, lack transparency, and serve as a barrier to recruiting and advancing talented people. The fact that so many good people make it through the process is more a testament to the intelligence and persistence of the the people who were hired rather than the design of the process.

So why is the federal hiring process so bad? And what would it take to make it work?

Like many questions in Washington, this one has multiple layers. There are aspects of the hiring process that are grounded upon good intentions, and aspects of it that are based upon the idea that people cannot be trusted. Some parts of the hiring process work, others do not. Much of the process is designed to defend the process itself.

The basic Merit System Principles are sound. If all we had were those principles, the system would probably work far better than it does today.

It is a big subject that I cannot cover in one blog post, so I am splitting into two. The first outlines the problems with the hiring process. The second will address what I believe are starting points for the solutions.

What is Broken

We require excessive amounts of documentation to prove that the people who are referred for selection and who get the job are the “best qualified.”

If virtually every business in the country can ask for no more than a 1 or 2-page resumé, why can’t the federal government?

There are two reasons, neither of which is good. Let’s start with the idea that we are looking for the “best qualified” person for the job. We should stop pretending that anyone can objectively be determined to be the “best qualified” because it just is not true.

Different managers may be looking for different types of people. One may believe technical qualifications are most important. Another may believe people skills are more important. Another may believe institutional knowledge is critical. Even the same manager may look for different skills at different times.

Maybe when I fill a job today I need strong technical skills because my best technical folks have retired. The next time I fill the same job I may need someone with strong project management skills because we are beginning a new multi-year project.

The bottom line is that as long as you adhere to Merit System Principles, all of those are OK. There is no requirement to find a mythical “best qualified” person who does not exist.

The requirement is that “selection and advancement should be determined solely on the basis of relative ability, knowledge, and skills, after fair and open competition which assures that all receive equal opportunity.” That’s it.

The other problem is that we require more documentation so other people can look at records and prove that someone did not cheat in the process. That leads to lengthy resumes, long questionnaires that tell us nothing, and a process that is so hard to explain that it causes a lot of good people to avoid applying for federal jobs.

The very practices that are supposed to help agency HR folks, IGs and OPM prove that the agency is following the rules of the merit system undermine the goals of the merit system. Rules and paperwork become more important than outcomes and the illusion of merit becomes more important than merit itself.

Investment in HR Specialist training

Somewhere along the way, federal agencies stopped building effective training programs for HR specialists. The result is that many HR specialists have inadequate formal training. They do not have a thorough understanding of the hiring process they run and the underlying law and Merit System Principles.

Every time I talk with a hiring manager I hear examples of how HR staff are giving them bad advice, including advice that is completely contrary to the Merit System Principles and to the regulations that govern the hiring process.

Hiring managers cannot be involved in the evaluation process? Heard that. Subject matter experts cannot review the applications? Heard that. Agencies cannot find applicants unqualified unless they can prove the applicant could not do the job? Heard that. Every applicant must be rated as qualified when there is any doubt about qualifications? Heard that one too.

Of course, all of those are silly ideas. They would be funny if they were not examples of the kind of advice some hiring managers are getting. It is not just hiring managers who believe HR specialists need more training – I hear complaints all the time from HR people whose agencies do not want to invest in training for them. Federal HR is complicated (far more than in the private sector) and it requires investing in training HR specialists how to run that complex process.

A great HR specialist can navigate the hiring process and make it at least tolerable. A bad HR specialist turns a bad process into even worse results. On top of that, the lack of investment in training HR specialists on government-specific processes puts an even greater burden on the HR folks who know what they are doing.

Misuse of automated tools

The systems agencies use for the hiring process are well-designed and in the hands of an experienced expert, they work. What has happened is that they are being used very badly.

I wrote at length about the subject in an earlier post titled Deus Ex Machina (god from the machine). The bottom line is that HR has become overly reliant on the tools and is often using them badly.

Take a look at USAJobs and read some of the questions applicants are asked. More often than not, what you will find is variations of the same type of question. They are copied from one job announcement to another, and do little to differentiate between applicants.

By far the worst aspect of how these tools are being misused is how agencies determine who is qualified and who is not. They simply ask the applicant.

Here is an example of a qualifications question from a live vacancy announcement:

To qualify for a GS-13 position, I have at least one year of specialized experience that has equipped me with the particular knowledge, skills and abilities to successfully perform the duties of the position. This experience is defined as performing highly complex analytical and program management assignments involving the interrelationship of administrative programs.

The options for answering the question are “A. I possess the experience required above as documented in my resume” and “B. My experience does not meet the requirements listed above.”

If the applicant selects answer A, s/he is qualified. What is supposed to happen next is that HR is should review the application to verify that the applicant actually has the experience.

In many agencies that simply does not happen. The same applies to the remaining questions that are supposed to determine who is well-qualified. So what happens is that hiring managers get lists of people who are not only not well qualified – they may not be qualified at all.

Hiring manager engagement in the process

As HR began to use automation and recycled applicant questionnaires, and based those on generic job descriptions, hiring managers were gradually eased out of the nuts and bolts of the hiring process. Some hiring managers want to be involved, but are told they cannot be. Others believe the hiring process is HR’s job and that hiring managers do not need to be engaged.

OPM recognized this problem and has attempted to correct it through their “Hiring Excellence” program.

The truth is that hiring talent is one of the most critical jobs of a manager. If s/he does not have time to worry about hiring people, s/he should not be a manager. Period.

The other reality that we should accept is that hiring managers, rather than HR, should drive the hiring process. HR should be there to advise and navigate, but not to drive.

The rating processes, including category rating

OPM mandated use of category rating as part of the Obama Administration’s hiring reform. The idea was that category rating would replace the old “rule of 3” that limited managers to considering the 3 highest-rated applicants. The theory sounded OK, but the execution has been anything but OK.

Because of the first four problems, category rating often produces lists of poorly qualified applicants, dominated by applicants with veteran preference. The problem is not with the veterans, it is with the broken process that does not eliminate less qualified applicants.

Here is how it works (I can point to hundreds of jobs advertised today that have the same problem). An agency advertises a job. It asks one question about basic qualifications (see “misuse of automated tools” section above). Then it asks 20 questions about how well qualified the applicants are. Maybe 5 of those questions are about the critical skills/knowledge the job requires. The rest are filler or things of marginal importance.

One applicant can give the highest scoring responses to the trivial questions, and the lowest scoring answer to the important questions.  Another applicant can give the highest scoring responses to the important questions, but lower scoring responses to the other questions. There are 3 times as many those garbage questions as there are important questions.

Guess who goes on the list and who is excluded? Right. The poorly qualified (or not at all qualified) applicant goes on the list and the highly qualified candidate is out of luck.

I recently sat with a hiring manager and went through all of the questions for a job she was having difficulty filling and showed how a marginal candidate could get 90 points or more. It happens far too often.

Veteran preference

Everyone says not to talk about veteran preference. It is the “third rail” of civil service reform. Touch it and die.

That presumes there are only 2 options – either do veteran preference the way it is done now or do away with it.

We should not do away with veteran preference. Giving consideration to veterans because of their service began with President Washington and has continued in some form ever since.

But – we do not have to handle veteran preference the way it is done now. The problem with avoiding talking about the problems with the way we currently handle veteran preference is that it ignores one of the issues that complicates the federal hiring process.

Every approach to veteran preference in recent decades has relied upon running a process that is supposed to be designed to separate qualified from unqualified candidates, then to determine the relative qualifications of the qualified folks. So far – so good. Then, whether it is with extra points or moving preference candidates to the top of a rating category, we take a process designed to measure one thing (relative qualifications), then we put a thumb on the scale to change the outcome.

There are better and less complicated ways to provide veterans with preference in federal hiring.

Federal hiring practices are a monument to excessive process. They are far too complex, and that complexity undermines the system.

If you do not think the process is too complicated, take a look at the OPM Delegated Examining Operations Handbook. All 351 pages of it. The book is a good product that describes the process very well.

The problem is not the book or the people who wrote it, but rather the processes it describes. Combine that complexity with the lack of investment in developing HR staff, and hiring managers who are not fully engaged in the hiring process, and you have a formula for a mess.

I know there may be many more problems that need to be addressed, but failing to deal with these problems will make it unlikely that “fixes” to the hiring process will actually fix anything. We have tried tweaking the system here and there for decades. Every time, we have added more complexity and created a bizarre contraption that virtually no one likes or trusts. It is time to throw the process out and rebuild a far less complex system based on the Merit System Principles.

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal's blog, ChiefHRO.com, and has been reposted here with permission from the author. Visit ChiefHRO.com to read more of Jeff's articles regarding federal human resources and other current events along with his insights on reforming the HR system.

About the Author

Jeff Neal is author of the blog ChiefHRO.com and was previously the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.