While Tom Temin is on vacation, please enjoy this Federal Report column pulled from our archives.
Business whisperers define management as getting things done through others. If you’re the manager, that makes two basics incumbent on you. One, can you motivate people to want to do their best. Two, can you identify and hire the right people in the first place.
I’ll add a third: How thoroughly does the average hiring manager actually know the system as it exists now, and can therefore deftly work its intricacies?
Like a seawall of granite blocks, federal hiring seems impervious to repeated waves of effort to reform it. Guess what? It’s never going to get easy. But maybe it can get a little faster.
Now comes the Chance to Compete Act, which is getting bipartisan support. I won’t reiterate everything it would do. FNN reporter Drew Friedman has comprehensively detailed the potential effects of the legislation and the federal hiring issues it purports to help solve. It’s a good read.
The government certainly needs hiring process reform. An old TV ad shows ketchup flowing so, so slowly out of an inverted bottle, under a sound track of “Anticipation” by Carly Simon. The idea conveyed is that the un-watery ketchup is worth waiting for. That applies for federal jobs, but only for those who don’t get an attractive offer while waiting for the federal machinery to grind on. The government needs faster ketchup.
All of the congressional and White House activity aimed at hiring could modernize it and speed it up, but not necessarily simplify it. My Spidey-sense is, don’t wait around for a grand era of frictionless federal hiring.
Hiring managers will always need a palette of techniques depending on the jobs they need filled. That’s because of the infinite mixtures of specific knowledge, education, experience, talent and character needed for a given job. Especially in public service, there’s no situation in which rapid ingestion of unvetted ‘meatware’ will ever result in good outcomes. Are you hiring a thoracic surgeon at VA? No on-the-job training there. But what if you need a contracting officer? No one who’s unfamiliar with what it takes to be a CO can walk in and do that job, but to some degree an agency can grow people into 1102s.
This came to mind when talking to the Government Accountability Office’s Frank Rusco, the director of the natural resources and environment group. His team has been looking at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC has a hiring shortfall for people to do a highly specific thing: decide on license applications for advanced nuclear reactors. NRC leadership has reorganized the agency to some extent in anticipation of licensing applications for this promising new source of power.
“Advanced” refers to a whole new generation of reactors totally unlike the traditional reactors like the one in China Syndrome. These new machines use different reactions and materials, and have different safety mechanisms than old-style light water reactors. They come in a variety of sizes. Some can fit in a truck trailer.
These new reactors, like electric cars versus traditional ones, take wholly new sets of knowledge and experience to understand. People are hard to get, partly because the industry, coming out of the gate, also needs talent. One recommendation the GAO made could apply across the government: The agency head “should direct staff to establish benchmarks and measures to assess its recruitment, relocation, and retention incentives and strategies to determine their effectiveness to help NRC retain and hire the staff necessary…” In this case, to evaluate applications for nuclear power licenses.
Discussions of federal hiring often center on the more than 100 authorities under which an agency can make a hire. Imagine you — you personally — knew them all. You’d be a hiring wizard. Maybe that’s the answer: Hiring managers must become certified in the authorities.
Among my hobbies is playing the piano. Franz Liszt I’m not. Instead, I use Liberace’s line: “I ain’t good but I got guts.” Anyhow, I’ve got a tall stack of classical sheet music I struggle through, never quite mastering much of it. I also have a set of volumes called The Czerny School of Velocity, first published in 1833. It consists of dozens of exercises to train the hands for speed and dexterity. If I ever had the self discipline to learn The Czerny School of Velocity, I could play anything.
Legislation and a grand effort by the White House and OPM might be coming. They’ll probably replace one confusing set of hiring machinery with another. But the 100+ hiring authorities? Those are your School of Velocity.