How agencies can improve recruitment and hiring without Congress’ help

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Don’t hold your breath waiting for Congress to do anything about reforming the civil service. Some agencies will have to continue to take it on themselves to improve the personnel recruitment and hiring practices everyone professes to hate. Now some new ideas have come out in a study by the Partnership for Public Service, sponsored by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. For highlights, the Partnership’s Director of Government Affairs Margot Conrad joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Margot, good to have you back.

Margot Conrad: Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: So, does the world need another study yet of the federal personnel system and practices? What’s behind this one?

Margot Conrad: It’s a great question, Tom. Clearly, there has been a lot of research done in this area. And as you said in your intro, I think what’s unique and different about this study is that we’re not looking at what is it that needs to be changed legislatively, we’re really looking at what can agencies do? What do they have within their own control to really bring about some change in the way that they recruit and hire talent for the future. And the other thing that we do in this report is we create a model for a dashboard that agencies can use to measure the health of their talent pipelines. We know there’s a lot of human capital data out there. We picked the top 10 measures, we believe, based on our research are most useful in understanding and analyzing talent pipelines.

Tom Temin: And what was the methodology for coming up with these ideas?

Margot Conrad: So we spent a lot of time – the better part of a year doing interviews with human capital leaders inside government. We spoke with leaders at 15 different agencies, large agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security with over 200,000 employees, and then smaller ones like GAO with 3,000 employees. We looked at both the parent agencies as well as subcomponents, and we also did a couple of interviews with some private sector companies to really understand what are some of the benchmarks or best practices that are out there.

Tom Temin: All right, and you came up with I guess, what you would call five strategies or range of issues that people should be following here. And also this was affected a little bit by the pandemic, too, so we might want to throw that into the mix. What are the major issues that they need to deal with?

Margot Conrad: I think what you just shared is really critical that it’s more important than ever for agencies to be focused on how they can streamline and improve the way they recruit and hire when you have a pandemic like this. And there’s a need to bring talent on board quickly. So we looked at four key areas: We looked at what agencies can do to strategically identify their talent needs for both today and tomorrow. And a lot of that revolves around workforce planning. And secondly, we looked at how to recruit more efficiently and effectively and by being more proactive, promoting an agency’s brand, keeping in touch with former employees and targeting young people in particular. Third, we looked at ensuring that agencies are hiring the best applicants by creating better candidate experience and also using innovative techniques to identify who is most qualified and finally, we talk about looking inward for talent, whether that’s rescaling or upskilling, and looking at interns as a primary talent pipeline.

Tom Temin: And you mentioned that there is a model of a dashboard to measure the health of your workforce. Does that mean something you can use to gauge what your openings and needs are in the future? Or when you say health, does that mean? Are they happy or not, or what?

Margot Conrad: Sure. It’s essentially a set of 10 measures that we recommend agencies look at, to really determine, you know, where they are in terms of preparing to recruit and hire talent for the future. So it looks at things like the vacancy rates, it looks at turnover before one year, that’s important, because if people are leaving before they even complete their probationary period that might indicate that there wasn’t the right hire that was made initially. We look at things around the percentage of employees under the age of 30, and other measures, just essentially to really get a better sense of, you know, what’s going on in the workforce and are they prepared and building a pipeline for the future.

Tom Temin: So with this type of dashboard, then you could really plug in your numbers regularly and a framework behind the scenes then would give you a sense of where you stand.

Margot Conrad: Exactly. So the idea is that agencies can be collecting and regularly analyzing this data, both at the chief human capital officer or HR director level, but also the senior leadership level to really understand what’s happening. The data isn’t going to give you all the answers, which is why it’s important to be digging deeper and start to probe and ask questions as a result.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Margot Conrad. She’s director of Government Affairs at the Partnership for Public Service. And what were some of the suggestions that respondents and people you interviewed came up with, that they’re doing or they feel they should do at least to strengthen recruiting and hiring at this point?

Margot Conrad: Well, there were some great new examples that we feature in this report, which I think is a terrific model that other agencies can hopefully adopt. So for example, the FBI they have built an attrition model internally, where they are able to look at how many people are likely to leave the organization how long it typically takes to bring a new employee on board? What percentage of job offers result in new hires, and they can actually start the hiring process before people even leave. And this dramatically shortens the amount of time it’s going to take to come on board. So that’s a best practice.

Tom Temin: Yeah, I was gonna say that. That’s something that, you know, in the old days, in private sector hiring people had what they called a black book of people out there in the industry that you knew of, maybe even competitors that you maintained records of, that could be possible hires, even though you didn’t have an opening, and the best managers kept that black book up to date. That’s kind of what we’re talking about.

Margot Conrad: Well, I mean, this is doing strategic recruitment and just beginning the process earlier. So it’s making sure that you have people that are already going through the hiring process and can actually come on board as soon as somebody leaves which I think is really strong most of the time and agencies now. You know, you have this process where someone leaves and then you think about it for a while and then you start to put maybe you dust off the old PD, you put it back out again. And so you can have a gap for a very long time before you’re able to fill that vacancy.

Tom Temin: Got it. And the other one I saw that was interesting is keeping in touch with former employees.

Margot Conrad: Yes, and this is something that I think the private sector actually does even more than government. But there’s a real opportunity to really reach out to former federal employees who know how government operates and may be interested in coming in and out of government throughout their careers. We know people are interested in having mobile careers. So I think this is a great way of reaching back out to people who are formerly in your network and bringing them back into government.

Tom Temin: And I want to relate two of the possible initiatives and kind of throw you a little bit of a curveball. One of them is building and promoting the brand, which is you know, private sector type of term and reaching young people. So how would you say the report postulates approaching when you have a really terrible brand, let’s just put it honestly say something like the Bureau of Prisons, which has a mission that’s an unhappy one, but a necessary one. And is also an agency that is really riddled with lots of challenges for its workforce and for its management, and then reaching a young person to say, golly, you really want to work for the Bureau of Prisons.

Margot Conrad: It’s a good question. And it’s a challenge that agencies face. I mean, some agencies have very strong brands, but others are not well known. I think it’s about ultimately just coming back to the mission and trying to help explain and articulate what is the work that you would be doing, and why is it critically important? How is this going to make a difference in the lives of the American people? If you can help tell that story and perhaps spotlight or showcase people doing the work and why they find it meaningful and the outcomes they’ve achieved? I think that’s going to go far in terms of really promoting the value proposition for your organization.

Tom Temin: And I think our discussion on the dashboard kind of hinted at this but you strongly recommend a data-and-evidence-based approach to recruiting new talent. Now that’s probably the law of land database and evidence-based policymaking in all of this are enshrined, but not many agencies are really that good at it, are they?

Margot Conrad: Well, I think there’s a lot of room here for growth and improvement. And part of why we did this study was to highlight the agencies that are really forward leaning in this area so that hopefully others can learn from them. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. So for example, the Department of Homeland Security has a great internal tool that they’ve created. That’s really helping them map and measure the impact and ROI of their recruitment activities. Perhaps that’s something that other agencies could adopt if DHS has figured out how to build that on their own. So I think there’s a lot of room for growth, and I think this report helps highlight some of the best practices.

Tom Temin: Yes, that DHS tool is strategic marketing, outreach and recruiting engagement. They call it SMORE. I guess, if you get hired, you get a Hershey bar and some marshmallows and to know you’re really in DHS. Alright, so how do you get this report and how can agencies start putting it to work?

Margot Conrad: I would encourage agencies to take a look at the report because again, there are some best practices in there that hopefully, agencies can learn from and encourage agencies to reach out and connect with each other to learn more. Also take a look at the dashboard in the back. And if you’re not already collecting some of these measures, think about really taking a hard look at what some of these measures are and using it as a tool to help evaluate your talent pipelines.

Tom Temin: MargotConrad is director of Government Affairs at the Partnership for Public Service. Thanks so much for joining me.

Margot Conrad: Thank you.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview along with a link to the latest document at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Subscribe to the Federal Drive at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

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