MSPB: Congress needs to do its part to help agencies hire better candidates

Congress and the Office of Personnel Management could go a long way toward helping agencies overcome one of many glaring challenges with the federal hiring process, the Merit Systems Protection Board said Monday in a new memo.

Specifically, MSPB said Congress should help agencies develop — and pay for — better tools to assess the skills and qualifications needed to succeed in a federal job. Additional appropriations, MSPB said, would help agencies administer assessments at little or no cost.

Today, agencies can use the standard assessments that OPM’s USA Hire Program has developed for nearly 120 different federal occupations.

But, as MSPB put it, there’s a “catch.” Agencies must pay OPM to use these assessments, which as MSPB put it, are “relatively expensive” for some organizations.

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“Given that USA Hire has already developed much of the content, this would be a good time for Congress to provide OPM the budget it needs to make these assessments more accessible to agencies so that they can hire the best workforce available,” MSPB wrote Monday in a new memo. “Several agencies also have told us that providing non-reimbursable assessment support would be beneficial and help the government achieve greater economies of scale.”

MSPB’s new memo weighs in on guidance OPM issued last month to agencies. That OPM guidance urged agencies to use their own subject matter experts to help human resources specialists screen for minimum qualifications and develop better assessments to determine an applicant’s qualifications for a specific job.

OPM’s recommendations will put agencies in the right direction, MSPB said, but they should go a step further.

“To reform hiring, the federal government needs to go beyond the prior emphasis on faster and cheaper and concentrate on better,” MSPB wrote.

Instead, MSPB said agencies should focus on:

  • Getting the right people involved at the beginning,
  • Properly defining job qualifications and expectations,
  • Using “valid assessments” to identity applicants most likely to have those qualifications, and
  • Making those assessments easily available to agencies.

That final recommendation, MSPB said, is where OPM — and by extension, Congress — have fallen short.

“It is, of course, easy to tell agencies to develop better assessments,” MSPB wrote. “Unfortunately, many agencies have neither the staff nor the money to do so. MSPB thinks this is where OPM and Congress can help.”

What MSPB didn’t mention is that OPM often relied on the revenue it generated from USA Hire and other programs under HR Solutions, the agency’s fee-for-service entity that offered products and services to help agencies address human capital challenges, to fund other operations within OPM.

OPM lost the vast majority of the revenue it earned through its revolving fund when the National Background Investigations Bureau and the security clearance business left for the Defense Department earlier this month.

Current and former agency officials have expressed some skepticism with this funding model for OPM. Some have suggested whether having OPM set human capital policy and sell HR products and services based on those policies could be a conflict of interest.

Adding subject matter experts to hiring process

Beyond its advice to Congress and OPM on more easily funding candidate assessment tools, MSPB was enthusiastic about the agency’s remaining hiring guidance.

Involving subject matter experts early on in the candidate assessment process, as OPM suggested, is key to removing a big barrier in the existing hiring process, MSPB said.

“For a long time, the HR community has been responsible for the tasks listed above, so it will take a culture change to ensure that SMEs and hiring officials are more involved in the process,” MSPB said. “HR will need to learn how to better partner with hiring organizations to exchange information and discuss options available for the hiring process. SMEs and hiring officials will need to understand that their involvement is an important part of their own job responsibilities and will directly reflect on the quality of their workforce — particularly as jobs become more knowledge based and technical in nature.”

In addition, MSPB praised OPM’s advice on minimum job qualifications. These minimum qualifications are usually described as “time-in-grade” requirements and have frustrated hiring officials, according to past MSPB surveys.

“Using general minimum qualification requirements that are not in tune with the specific duties of the job makes it difficult for agencies to measure whether applicants actually have the basic skills needed, and also makes it difficult for applicants to know whether they are truly qualified and should apply,” MSPB wrote.

Backlog piles up at MSPB

Though MSPB still lacks a quorum after two-and-a-half years, the agency can re-purpose previously collected data and insights or lend new perspectives on topics related to the civil service, as it has done with Monday’s new memo.

The board has been without a single board member since March 1, when the term for acting MSPB Chairman Mark Robbins expired.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee cleared two out of three of the president’s nominees to the MSPB back in February. The committee cleared a third nominee back in June, but the Senate hasn’t touched any of the nominations.

The Senate must vote to confirm at least two of the MSPB nominees to restore a quorum to the board and make progress on the backlog of pending cases.

The situation is unprecedented in MSPB’s 40-year history and prevents the board from issuing decisions on a federal employee’s, or agency’s, petition for review.

As of Sept. 30, MSPB had 2,264 petitions for review awaiting action from the board, according to the agency’s monthly count, which it posts on its website.

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