While Tom Temin is on vacation, please enjoy this Federal Report from the archives.
You know you’ve finally reached management when you’re personally incapable of doing a job you’re hiring someone else to do.
In the middle of my career, I oversaw the content of a small group of business magazines. One of them operated a testing lab for computer gear. It was a source of endless requests for more racks, more equipment, more benchmarking software. I also had to sign off on hires to work in the small lab staff. I had no idea how to do the work they did. Luckily I had a very smart cookie in charge of the lab, someone not only with tech chops but also with an excellent reputation in the industry.
The lab manager naturally became my go-to person to evaluate whether candidates could run benchmarks on a PC or a switch. Or if they could tell the difference between a RJ-11-tipped cable and a RJ-45-tipped one. I knew a banana plug when I saw one because I’d visited the company that invented them and had received an exhaustive briefing.
My reliance on a hands-on expert hardly constituted a genius piece of managerial insight. It seemed like the only practical way of avoiding hiring failures. If the hire were to produce grammar or punctuation problems, my copy desk could fix that. But if they screwed up an evaluation, we’d have a real problem on our hands.
The government is apparently widening its use of this method of hiring — using what it calls subject matter expert qualification assessments. It’s even a word now, smeequa. Sounds like something from Dr. Seuss.
Jennifer Pahlka, formerly of Code For America and U.S. Digital Service, had a comprehensive post about SME-QA more than a year ago. She, like many others, was surprised that 90% of competitive job postings by the federal government rely on candidates’ self-assessment questionnaires.
That doesn’t mean that 90% of hires go to phony braggarts. It means more that the government wastes a lot of time and effort sifting through resumes and interviewing people with no chance of ever getting the job. Often no one gets hired. Or the truly qualified don’t make it through resume screening.
You or I could fill out a self assessment describing our deep knowledge and skill in operating nuclear reactors. We’d probably get a call back and even an interview, say, with the Navy or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the Energy Department. At best someone would catch on. At worst the government would hire into a “Catch Me If You Can” situation. Instead, under SME-QA, there’s no self-assessment questionnaire. As Pahlka described it, “Instead, subject matter experts (SMEs) partner with HR to review resumes, using their understanding of the actual job to determine who is qualified and eligible.”
SME-QA represents so much common sense, naturally the government people who saw its potential had to comb through statute and regulation to justify it legally. But it is totally justifiable for competitive hires.
Some agencies have been using SME-QA or its equivalent for years. Case in point: The Government Publishing Office. Chief Human Capital Officer Dan Mielke says he’s had success with the SME-QA methodology since 2018. In this interview, Mielke points out that GPO encompasses many craft and technical positions. It needs people who can hand-color edges of book leaves, set up a bindery, do mechanical and electrical repair on machinery and, of course, actually print books and periodicals. Physical printing remains an important part of the GPO’s increasingly digital mission.
Mielke says you can even ask candidates to perform a specific task they’d reasonably be expected to do shortly after joining. Weld that joint. Code that function.
In one case, GPO used a long-time employee with deep expertise in social media as the SME to assess a hire to do similar work.
That’s the beauty of the process with the awkward name — you’ve already got in your agency the experts you need to help you hire more accurately. And if you don’t, some nearby agency surely does. Mielke says he himself loaned his expertise to another agency looking to hire a workforce development director, a job Mielke held earlier.
You need people. A great way to streamline getting them is out there. What are you waiting for?