VA pushes hiring reforms through program managers

The agency is using service level agreements to help ensure hiring managers are involved in all parts of the process. VA cut the amount of time it takes to hire...

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Facing a strict timeline and under orders from its secretary, the Veterans Affairs Department on average hired 3,000 new employees in 67 days.

The agency created a tiger-team to ensure the hiring process hit few, if any, speed bumps.

John Sepúlveda, VA’s assistant secretary for human resources and administration, said Secretary Eric Shinseki wanted the average time reduced to bring on new employees to help reduce the backlog of disability claims and to implement the provisions of the new GI bill.

“We had to do several things including automate our processes and create new systems,” Sepulveda said. “When you do a tiger team, it means concentrating efforts around specific needs. But you also need to do hiring reforms and make sure these are changes that take place throughout VA.”

What this effort to hire 3,000 people in a few months also showed VA is that cutting the time it takes to hire new employees isn’t just possible, but necessary to meet the goals of the agency.

“We know we can reduce the time by being more efficient and training people and cutting out KSAs [Knowledge, Skills and Abilities essays], using resumes and communicating with our hiring managers,” he said. “We can make this work and we are making it work.”

Over the past year, VA reduced its average time to bring on a new employee by 20 days — to 81 days from 102 days. Sepulveda said he expects to be below the governmentwide goal of 80 days in 2011.

Few agencies met the 80-day goal in 2010, according to the Office of Personnel Management. OPM said in October the average time across government to hire a new employee dropped to 110 days.

Sepulveda said one of the ways VA will further shrink their norm is by requiring hiring managers to sign service level agreements (SLAs) to hire new employees.

“The SLAs are saying to the hiring managers ‘you are committing to give us the time necessary to identify the knowledge, skills and abilities needed for your employee, give us the time to participate in the review process, make sure you give us time to interview candidates and finally select them, and let us know what your decision is so we can begin the on-boarding process,'” Sepulveda said. “The goal is to clearly have more of a one-on-one full-fledged engagement on the part of our hiring managers.”

VA has 26,000 hiring managers and 5,000 human resources professionals, and Sepulveda said the SLA’s connect the two communities to ensure they work in partnership to bring on the best people.

Service level agreements aren’t commonly used for the hiring process, but rather used to detail performance expectations between two entities who sign a contract.

“We are seeing real progress on that front at VA as many more of our hiring mangers see the benefits of finding the talent they need,” Sepulveda said. “They are committing to it because it makes sense.”

He added that VA also is adding the goal to reduce the time it takes to hire a new employee into senior managers’ performance plans. This helps further push the need for their participation in the process, Sepulveda said.

Along with the SLAs, VA is retraining HR and hiring managers to use resumes, conduct interviews and make selections.

“We also do training online for hiring mangers where we outline what responsibilities they have and how they can be full partners with HR,” he said. “One of the problems we’ve experienced in the past, was sometimes there is an assumption that the HR folks will take care of hiring new employees because it’s their job. But HR is part of the solution, not the only solution. Hiring managers must clearly define what they are looking for, why these candidates are best the people and define their needs or skills upfront so you can proceed in bringing in the most qualified people.”

Sepulveda said over the next year the hiring transformation will continue not only at VA but across the government. As the chairman of the Chief Human Capital Officer’s Council’s hiring reform committee, he is working with agencies across the government to share best practices and further reduce the governmentwide average.

“This process has started less than six months ago so we are making significant process in a short amount of time,” he said. “This is happening across the government and that speaks to fact we are finally giving a historic opportunity to make this happen and finally stop talking about it.”

OPM is rolling out a series of tools for agencies over the next year, including ones for candidate assessments and for accepting applications.

Sepulveda said VA will use the new e-classification tool to help supervisors and HR employees make sure they are describing positions in the most appropriate way.

“Rather than going through process of creating new position descriptions, there is a library with vetted and validated descriptions you can use,” he said. “That will cut a large amount of time out of the process.”

VA also launched about a year ago its Human Capital Investment plan. Sepulveda said this the strategy is a multi-layered approach to training in mission critical areas, developing an online assessment tool to determine what is the level of skills, abilities and competence needed for individual occupations and the creation of a HR academy.

He added that the academy is a dedicated training institute with the goal of training 4,000 human resources professionals over the next few years.

VA also is investing in their Senior Executive Service members by providing training and standing up corporate SES management office to coordinate training, development and management.

All of his efforts over the past year earned Sepulveda the CHCO Council’s CHCO of the Year award.

“For me, I was accepting the award on their behalf of the staff at VA and the other CHCOs around government,” he said. “We have some great CHCOs doing great work throughout the government. Anyone of them could have very well and may very well get that award next year.”

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