OPM policy changes may improve hiring, but only if agencies do not find ways to maintain the status quo

Jeff Neal breaks down why federal hiring practices are slow, confusing to nongovernment applicants, get tied up in regulations and often result in unqualified a...

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This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.

Last week, the Office of Personnel Management issued new guidance to agencies with the intent of improving hiring practices. The document, “Improving Federal Hiring through the Use of Effective Assessment Strategies to Advance Mission Outcomes,” lays out improvements to hiring practices that can be implemented without changes to the law or regulations. I believe OPM has made a good start, but there is still more that should be done.

We all know federal hiring practices are miserable. They are slow, confusing to nongovernment applicants, tied up in countless regulations, unnecessarily complicated by Veteran Preference, and often result in lists of barely qualified applicants that are not suitable for the job. The result is that hiring managers struggle to hire the right talent, applicants get frustrated, and federal workers have little trust in the system they have to use to get a promotion. Virtually no one thinks it works.

OPM is attempting to improve the process by making some changes that would increase subject-matter expert involvement prior to issuing job announcements and in making qualifications determinations, decrease reliance of applicant self-assessment and increase use of effective assessment tools, and tighten qualifications determinations and referral processes so unqualified and poorly qualified candidates do not show up on referral lists.

“A common myth about assessments is that determining minimum qualifications and rating and ranking applicants can only be done by Human Resources (HR) staff. In fact, OPM guidance indicates that it is entirely appropriate — and encouraged — to use Subject Matter Experts (SME) outside of HR, with diverse backgrounds and relevant experiences, to work with HR to perform determinations of whether applicants are qualified.” — OPM Guidance

The idea of having SMEs involved in the process is not new. In fact, it was the way the government ran its hiring processes for decades. At some point, the combination of hiring manager disinterest and HR office focus on speed resulted in hiring managers and SMEs dropping out of the process. It has gotten so bad that some HR specialists claim it is inappropriate to have SMEs involved after a job announcement has been issued. As OPM clearly states, that belief is just plain wrong. Why would anyone say that the people who know the work cannot participate in evaluating candidates, and only HR specialists who know little, if anything, about the jobs have to do it?

Even worse is the practice of many HR specialists to rely entirely on applicant self-assessment questionnaires in USAStaffing and similar systems. The result of the existing process is that, in many agencies, applicants are asked to assess their own qualifications. Are you qualified? Yes. Are you really well-qualified? Yes. Congratulations! You are on the list. Then the hiring manager wonders why someone who cannot spell IT shows up on a list for an IT specialist job.

OPM’s new guidance includes two key directives that may make a difference. First, it says agencies must “reduce agency over-reliance on self-rated occupational questionnaires by expanding assessment strategies and utilizing other effective assessment methods like structured interviews, knowledge tests, situational judgment tests, USA Hire Assessments, or writing samples.” That is a good start. The self-rating process started out as a way of supplementing the work of HR professionals. It has degenerated into a process that substitutes for HR amateurs. At this point, most of those questionnaires are virtually useless and do nothing to differentiate highly qualified candidates from blowhards who say they can do anything.

The second directive requires agencies to “Involve SMEs who possess expert knowledge about the competencies and proficiency levels that are essential in successfully performing the job. Agencies should involve SMEs not only in conducting job analyses, but also in reviewing resumes and conducting structured interviews to screen out applicants not possessing the required qualifications.” The italicized part is critical; if agencies actually take the time to do this, they can eliminate unqualified applicants, ensure those who show up on a list as “highly qualified” are in fact highly qualified, and greatly reduce the number of unused referral lists. That is the single greatest improvement in the process agencies can make absent structural changes in the governing law and regulations.

OPM based their guidance in part on a pilot conducted in collaboration with the United States Digital Service, which involved SMEs in both the qualifications determinations and in ranking applicants. USDS also capped applications at the first 100; OPM rules allow that, as long as every application received on the day that the 100th application comes in is considered. The result was far fewer applications on referral lists, with much higher selection rates. USDS proved that agencies that are willing to invest the time can get dramatically better results without asking Congress to change the law.

Will agencies actually do it? I have had HR specialists tell me only HR can evaluate applications and that it is unethical to have SMEs look at applications. Hiring managers and HR folks tell me they don’t have time to do that type of review and reliance on USAStaffing and similar systems is the only option they have. They are wrong.

Vast amounts of time are wasted by advertising jobs repeatedly in hopes of stumbling across a good applicant. Talking to great applicants about the reasons they cannot get on a certificate takes time. Dealing with a bad selection that resulted from a bad hiring process takes time. All of these time sucks do nothing to make the process work. If agencies want to improve their hiring processes. I believe they have to implement these changes as soon as possible.

OPM also identified a number of steps they will take to help improve the process. OPM said they will:

  1. Issue guidance on the effective use of the Subject Matter Expert Qualification Assessment (SME-QA) process for technical positions.
  2. When regulations have been promulgated and the mandate to use category rating has been eliminated, the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act can be implemented to provide greater flexibility in determining which qualified individuals are available for selection, based on numeric scores, rather than being restricted to the top 3 qualified candidates.
  3. Issue the “Guide to Better Occupational Questionnaires” to provide agencies additional information about methods for developing highly-effective occupational questionnaires for candidate self-assessment.
  4. Implement the Federal Supervisor Assessment through USA Hire in fiscal 2020. The FSA is designed for federal supervisory positions and measures seven competencies critical to supervisory success: Accountability, customer service, decisiveness, flexibility, iInterpersonal skills, problem solving, and resilience.
  5. Update OPM’s staffing “mythbusters” document to incorporate new myths related to promising practices in assessment.
  6. Update the Assessment Decision Tool to provide hiring managers, HR specialists, and I/O psychologists with assessment options for identifying needed competencies and to develop assessment strategies for their specific hiring situations (e.g., volume of applicants, level of available resources).

That list should include one more change. OPM should explicitly ban the use of self-assessment questions for determining whether applicants meet basic qualifications requirements. OPM’s guidance says, “At present, most agencies use the occupational questionnaire to screen applicants for minimum qualifications. Screening minimum qualifications using an occupational questionnaire is fine, but a “deeper dive” needs to be taken in order to address the actual competencies needed to perform the work successfully.” I disagree — screening minimum qualifications using an occupational questionnaire is not fine. It results in far too many unqualified applicants moving on to the next step of the process.

Take a look at some of the job announcements that are currently on USAJobs. Many agencies are determining qualifications via a single question that asks applicants if they are qualified. Some do not follow that up with a review by anyone, and most virtually never have it reviewed by an SME. OPM should take the next step and ban that type of qualifications process. Agencies should determine qualifications by having an SME read the résumés.

The good news is that agencies that want to do that can do it today. Taking that extra step would greatly reduce the number of bad referral lists, discourage unqualified people from applying for jobs that they clearly are not qualified to do, and increase the likelihood that strong candidates will make it through the process.

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