This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
OPM has revamped its USAJobs website, adding new features and an improved look and feel. The updates are the latest in OPM’s ongoing efforts to make USAJobs more user-friendly and easier to search. The site has a troubled history, chiefly because of the problems it experienced when OPM brought it in-house in October 2011.
The 2011 rollout of USAJobs certainly did not cover OPM with glory. The site suffered from capacity and usability issues and it clearly needed more testing before going live. When the system had 45 million page views on its second day, it choked. OPM and the CHCO Council worked their way through the problems, stabilized the system, then promised to improve it and deliver the kind of job portal the government needs.
One of problems with a botched rollout is that it can taint a product for years to come. Regardless of what OPM did to fix USAJobs, some folks will always have the 2011 experience as their frame of reference, even if they did not personally experience problems with the system. That problem is not unique to OPM — the bad taste left by product rollouts can ruin perceptions of a product, sometimes forever.
OPM resisted calls to outsource USAJobs again, and in the years since has responded rather effectively to the many complaints they received. Most recently, Acting Director Beth Cobert released a statement on Sept. 12 saying “I’m really excited about all of the progress we have made with USAJOBS. But this doesn’t mean our work is done. The USAJOBS team here at OPM will continue to solicit user feedback and make continuous enhancements to the website to improve the experience for applicants interested in Federal service.”
The OPM statement also outlined new features of the site, saying “Some of the updates from the past year include delivering a mobile-friendly responsive design website that replaced the USAJOBS app, a revised, step-by-step application process, a new user interface, a new help center, a new user profile experience, Federal job ‘mythbusters,’ and a new landing page to draw users in to create a profile and begin their job search.” OPM posted a USAJobs timeline that shows the evolution of the site over the 20 years it has existed, including some big numbers showing how much activity the site sees every year. The numbers are impressive — 11 million accounts, 16 million resumes, 14,000 jobs available every day, and 1 billion (yes, with a B) searches per year.
Overall, the improvements are significant. The site is easier to navigate, has an excellent step-by-step guide to the hiring process, and offers improved help for users. The new landing page makes it easier for a newbie to find the information they need. But, there are still areas that could stand improvement. Stability of the site has improved greatly over the years, but there are still occasional glitches. While I was reviewing the site for this post, I spent several minutes getting an error message when I tried searching. Search itself is also mixed bag. Over the years OPM has greatly improved the search function. If you select advanced search, it is not very difficult to find jobs. The basic search function on the homepage is less satisfying. It is a keyword search and the nature of keyword searches is that they are not always helpful. For example, if you search for “human resources” you will get thousands of hits. Why? Most job announcements tell applicants to contact human resources with questions, or to send documents to human resources.
Because keyword searches are not as useful, the USAJobs “advanced search” option should be more readily accessible to users. That means users who are unfamiliar with the site are likely to use the basic keyword search, then move on to refining the search. It works, but users should be able to go directly from the homepage to the advanced search option.
Regardless of the improvements to USAJobs, OPM is going to take a lot of heat for problems with the federal hiring process, even when those problems are not caused by OPM. For example, Federal News Radio had a May 16, 2016 article that covered the complaints some folks had about USAJobs. Those complaints included unqualified applicants who are referred to selecting officials, lack of responses to applicants and the need to use social media for recruiting. Let’s take them one-by-one.
Unqualified applicants are the responsibility of agencies. OPM writes the basic qualifications requirements, but agencies have tremendous flexibility in how they are used. Unless an agency pays OPM to run the hiring process, agencies write the job descriptions, identify specialized experience, decide who is and who is not qualified, and determine who goes on a referral certificate.
Agencies are responsible for responding to applicants. Applicant tracking systems such as USA Staffing, Monster and Acendre, used by the majority of agencies, make it simple for agencies to communicate with applicants. Some agencies are great at communicating with applicants — others not so much.
Announcing vacancies on USAJobs is required for most agencies, but that is to make it more likely applicants can actually find the jobs. If every agency advertised when and where it wanted, finding federal jobs would be even harder than it is today. There is nothing that prohibits agencies from using social media to recruit. In fact, some are doing that right now. LinkedIn, for example, has many federal jobs listed. NASA has a dedicated NASA People Twitter feed. Other agencies are using social media effectively and do not need to rely solely on OPM to do it for them.
To answer the question I started with, in this case beauty is more than skin deep. I believe OPM has made excellent progress in the past year. It is a better site, more useful, and is continuing to improve. They have gotten into a practice of ongoing improvements based on user feedback. Under Beth Cobert’s leadership, I have no doubt they will continue to refine and improve the system.
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.