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Government Hiring May Be Moving to the Fast Lane

August 9, 2010

Budget deficits notwithstanding, expect as many as 300,000 to 400,000 new federal hires in the next few years. That’s according to Allan Schweyer, a principal for the Center for Human Capital Innovation, which is one of the members of the Portal for Talent Management in Government.

Fiscal year 2011’s budget reflects the intent to hire more federal employees as soon as possible.

“The money spent on salary and wages for government employees is increasing and the money for contractors is decreasing,” says Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer of FedSources, a consulting firm in Washington that specializes in the contracting activities of the federal government. Bjorklund performed an extensive analysis of next year’s budget and reported his findings in the FedSources document “Federal Budget Analysis 2011.”

The hiring shift represents a change from the “contractors can do everything better” philosophy of the Bush administration, which Bjorklund says didn’t work well. The policy shift was formally announced in a March 2009 memorandum from President Barack Obama stating that “contractors may be performing inherently governmental functions. Agencies and departments must operate under clear rules prescribing when outsourcing is and is not appropriate.”

Aside from the problem of defining “inherently governmental functions,” the difficulty with returning jobs to civil servants is a lack of manpower.

“There are about 2 million civil servants and about 6 million contractors,” says Schweyer of the Washington-based Center for Human Capital Innovation. “That’s a big ratio, and Obama wants to swing it back.”

To achieve its goal, the government must hire more federal employees—and more quickly than usual. “The current hiring process is overly complex and takes too long,” wrote Peter R. Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, in a May 11 blog post. “On average, it takes 140 days to make a new hire, and in some cases, it can take nearly 200 days. Often, by the time a federal agency is ready to make an offer, the best candidates have taken a position elsewhere.”

To speed hiring, the federal government is planning dramatic changes in recruiting practices. For one, defense and intelligence agencies now have the power to hire from their contractor workforce.

Such hiring hasn’t been “uncommon in science-related agencies,” Bjorklund says. “It has been unusual in intelligence and the Department of Defense because the agencies never had the hiring authority to cherry-pick the best candidates.”

The current hiring process starts with the posting of a densely written job description on USAjobs.gov that may be 20 pages long. Job seekers apply by writing “knowledge, skills and abilities” essays of 10 to 20 pages. Hiring managers must come up with their own criteria for grading the essays, which is done by a panel of at least three people. The hiring manager provides guidance to the panel, but doesn’t sit on in it.

Once the panelists have evaluated all the essays—not a quick task—they meet to compare results. “If there are significant anomalies, the panel must resolve them,” says Owen Jones, a senior director with FedSources. “Then they develop a numerical ‘certificate’ of ranking—a numerical listing of the names—which is given to the hiring manager. There is a ‘rule of three,’ which means the hiring managers must pick from the top three unless some of them have dropped out.”

The three top candidates must be interviewed. But if a veteran applies and ranks in the top three, that person must be selected unless the hiring manager applies for a waiver—another lengthy process.

The new recruiting and hiring process will eliminate essays at the point of job application. Instead, assessments will be made of candidates’ knowledge, skills and abilities. “This will help to eliminate a lot of candidates,” says Anne Kelly, a principal with the Center for Human Capital Innovation. The assumption is that it will also be a lot faster than the essay method.

Candidate assessments will be scored by a method not yet worked out. Jones says the rule of three also will be abandoned. Instead, hiring managers will be able to choose from a larger group of top-ranked individuals. Whether the group is five, 15 or more will depend on the position and possibly on the agency and the hiring manager. Jones says finalists may be asked to write essays to assist hiring managers with their selections. Veteran preference will still apply, and waivers will still take a lot of work.

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