Hire and hire. Fed revamps process for job-seekers.

Getting hired by the federal government can be a Kafka-esque experience, say many who, in the past, have attempted to find their way through the byzantine obstacle course leading up to, “You’re hired.” But that nightmare may be about to end, as the Obama administration institutes a massive revision of federal hiring policies. Announced to great fanfare in mid-May, the new procedures aim to simplify job applications, reduce the time frame between application and hiring, and ensure that the right person gets the right job.  All of these ideas make especially good sense now, of course, because America’s employment situation is dire, and because the federal government offers many hiring opportunities.

But government hiring practices have traditionally been much more formalized and regimented that those of private companies—primarily  because government hiring needs to at least appear to be fair and merit-based. (That outcome, as too many scandals about unqualified, incompetent and/or well-connected employees have demonstrated, has not always been the result.)  And the Obama administration is not the first to identify problems in federal hiring practices, nor is it the first to try to change the rules. The big change now is that President Obama himself is pushing for improvements, as evidenced by the memorandum he signed earlier this month.  He wants it done well, and he wants it done soon, and he has called for all federal agencies to implement the new hiring regimen by November 1, 2010.

The revamped hiring policy focuses on several areas that have caused obvious problems for many years. Among its highlights, the new policy:

• Eliminates the use of “knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA)” essays to assess candidates in the initial stages of the hiring process, and instead rely on resumes. The complaint about KSA’s has been that prospective employees have been required to respond to very preliminary questions with essays, when a resume might offer a clear description of the skills and knowledge he/she needed in previous jobs. The switch to resume-based hiring also brings the government’s process more in line with that of the private sector, potentially making government work more accessible and competitive.

• Requires managers and supervisors to play a greater role in the hiring process.  Under earlier policies, the manager or supervisor, who would potentially work directly with a new employee, might never interview the applicant.

• Use shorter job announcements written in plain English.  Current job descriptions, say many applicants, use obscure terminology and convoluted sentence structures, making it hard even to figure out what the job is.

• Eliminate the current “rule-of-three” process, where only the top-three-scoring candidates are put forward for hiring managers to choose from, and instead adopt the category rating system, where managers can select from many more candidates placed in broad quality groupings.  “Right now, once you make it through the meat grinder of this process, all these good candidates, who are well qualified — they’re best qualified — we throw them out and make them start over again,” says John Berry, head of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which oversees federal hiring. “We’re going to stop that and now allow departments to immediately draw out of that pool.”

• Notify applicants of their status at four points in the hiring process. Currently, agencies take about 140 days on average to fill a job vacancy, and many fear that the best candidates get tired of waiting for the government and take jobs elsewhere. Leaders hope that the new reforms will get the government’s average down to 80 days.

“For far too long our human resources systems have been a hindrance,” says Berry. “We have great workers in spite of the hiring process, not because of it.”

A further streamlining move is evident on the federal government’s USAjobs website, where job seekers can now fill out a single, standardized application for any federal agency.

Last year, the Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) served as a guinea pig for new hiring practices, and the results have been encouraging. When the agency mapped out its existing hiring process, it identified 40 steps, which HUD’s top hiring officer said “looked like a wiring diagram for an electronic circuit.” Subsequently, HUD pared the process down to a 14-step program, standardized its procedures and, as a result, cut its average hiring time from 139 days to 77. In anticipation of the Nov. 1, 2010 deadline, other agencies are expected to use a similar mapping process to streamline their own procedures.

Will this latest effort make a difference? We can only hope that the Obama administration’s stated commitment to better, more efficient and open government will enable it to succeed where others have not.