OPM sees more momentum behind digital hiring, performance tools

The Office of Personnel Management is harnessing the power of agency feedback to perfect data-driven, digital hiring and performance management tools.

In the past two years, OPM has seen more agency momentum behind USA Hire, said Dianna Saxman, deputy associate director of the Federal Staffing Group at OPM, during a panel discussion at the Government Workforce Conference in Washington Sept. 10. The conference is sponsored by the Association for Talent Development.

USA Hire is a vendor-owned testing platform that prompts federal job applicants through a series of questions that ask them to demonstrate their skills. Individual questions are tailored to the position, and the tests themselves are part of the forms applicants see on their screens when starting an application on USAJobs.gov.

OPM filled about 30-to-40 vacancies through USA Hire last year. This year it’s filled more than 500.

“It took a while for agencies to really see the value of USA Hire — to pilot it to get some results — but now we’re starting to see its scale,” Saxman said.

She described assessment hiring as a “missing link” that HR managers have been struggling with for some time. Typically, applicants would rank — and often inflate — their skills on a job application.

“Many agencies are under-funded or they just haven’t thought about the return on investment, [so] a lot of agencies use a 1-5 scale, rate-yourself, self-rating questionnaire as their primary screen,” said Justin Johnson, executive director of the Chief Human Capital Officer’s Council. “They get so many people who are qualified based on that self-rating that it doesn’t lead to good outcomes.”

Christine Heflin, director of performance excellence at the Commerce Department, questioned whether government could hire people with entrepreneurial spirit.

“If you apply for USAJobs and you’d like an interview, every young person in this country who is interested in a federal job knows you have to lie,” she said during another panel at the event. “You have to put that you’re expert in all the different skills. They all know it. We are screening out honest and ethical. We are systematically screening out honest and ethical.”

HR managers have told Saxman they’re saving more time now, because they have fewer applicants to review. And the applicant pool itself is more qualified.

“We’re also seeing that HR managers are saying there’s a better fit between the skills that are required for the job and the applicants that are showing up on the referral list,” Saxman told Federal News Radio. “Again, it’s a more precise assessment that looks at cognitive ability, your meet and deal skills and job fit.”

It also weeds out the casual applicants. Thirty percent of applicants drop out when they see the test powered by USA Hire on the screen. But once applicants decide to take the test, 95 percent of them finish it.

Saxman said 12 million people applied for a federal job last year. New technology, such as OPM’s overhaul of USAJobs.gov, has made it easier for people to apply to government jobs. But it’s also created more challenges for hiring managers to find the right person.

“Making it easier to apply … we flooded HR with more applications from people who were not qualified or not really even that interested in the job,” Johnson said. “It’s, ‘I heard someone apply for 90 jobs; I’m going to apply for 100.'”

USA Staffing

Saxman said OPM hopes to migrate 9,000 HR managers, 100,000 hiring managers and millions of applicants to its talent acquisition software, USA Staffing, over the next two years.

Of the jobs posted on USAJobs.gov, agencies acquire, choose and on-board candidates through USA Staffing 75-to-80 percent of the time, Saxman said. A variety of agencies — from the Social Security Administration to the Defense Department — use the program.

She said it’s the feedback and ideas she and her colleagues have heard from OPM’s customers — agency hiring and HR managers — that have helped the agency continuously build these tools.

Agile development also plays a part.

Over the past two years, OPM has overhauled a legacy system that took 10 years to build. In six-month increments, it’s adding more capabilities to the site — and testing them with their customers along the way. It’s also gathered suggestions and feedback from agency hiring managers during the testing process to make major improvements.

“We took a system that we built over 10 years and rebuilt it over a two-year period, taking all the lessons learned that we’ve had in the last 10 years and built this into a new version of the system,” Saxman told Federal News Radio. “It’s allowed us to really capitalize on new technologies where we were limited in the legacy system.”

USA Performance

Automating performance management is another tool OPM is perfecting with help from agency hiring managers.

USA Performance, OPM’s automated performance appraisal system, is already deployed for Senior Executive Service programs.

Hiring managers can look at performance standards for all their employees in one system, sign them electronically and send them to their employees.

“You have an opportunity to really look at goal setting all the way down at an employee level and then start reporting that,” she said.

Saxman said agencies will see some progress beyond the SES in the first quarter of next fiscal year. She expects it will be another two years before USA Performance covers all non-SES occupations. But she said OPM is taking the lessons it’s learned and the feedback it’s received with the SES, to inform the second iteration of USA Performance.

“One of our biggest challenges is to figure out, of the 500 good ideas, which ones are going to have the biggest impact [and] which are going to best serve our users,” Saxman said. “Our resources are fixed, but our creativity and innovation is not.”

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