Over the last six weeks, the General Services Administration has demonstrated what the future of federal hiring could look like.
Since late March, GSA has hired more than 100 new employees virtually.
“We were able to establish their accounts, configure their devices and ship them to their homes. They were able to take virtual oaths and do their online paperwork and start on day one just as if they were in the office,” said Beth Killoran, the deputy chief information officer at GSA, during a recent COVID-19 town hall webinar sponsored by ACT-IAC. “We were really fortunate to have a lot of things in place and we really only had to tweak around the edges and add a couple of new processes or modify them where something had required in person prior to coronavirus.”
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GSA’s example of changing its approach to hiring and onboarding can’t just a one-off in the federal sector, but it’s something that experts say should be, really has to be, the norm.
“The hiring process hasn’t changed in a long time. There are still regulations in place that dictate the framework by which they go about doing this. And over the years, a lot of agency efforts moved away from paper to electronic, but the world has changed over the last 20 years in terms of the technology at their disposal and the government should be looking at leveraging that technology going forward,” said Steve Maier, president of Management Concepts, in an interview with Federal News Network. “Some agencies remain paper-based and others have moved along to using advance capabilities and technology, and are showing, if applied correctly, technology can improve the efficiency of the hiring effort on the agency side to get the job done, process more candidates and do more interviews. It will take some burden of interaction out of the picture.”
Agencies such as the Small Business Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Veterans Affairs and others face the double edge challenge of needing to hiring employees quickly to help meet the requirements of the stimulus law but must work through the arduous federal hiring process.
In March, OPM said the time to hire an employee from first application to getting them fully onboarded was 98 days, down from 105.8 days in 2016 and 2017.
That remains way too long when agencies must fill job openings to process loans or provide medical care today.
“The coronavirus pandemic is shining the light on chronic problems with the federal hiring process,” said Linda Rix, co-CEO of Avue Technologies, in an interview. “Because it’s generally convoluted, difficult and it reduces the level of agility the federal government needs right now. We are seeing a brighter light shining on the hiring process and its difficulties, and now more than ever we need more agility in the process.”
OPM has tried to address the lack of agility issuing several memos to try to bring the time to hire down and reduce the burden.
It’s unclear if those efforts are having an impact.
For the last six to seven weeks, individuals have started an average of 340,000 applications on USAJobs.gov each week, according to the Office of Personnel Management. Overall, applications on the job site are up 2% today compared to this time last year, Anthony Marucci, an OPM spokesman, said in an email to Federal News Network.
To date there are 502 coronavirus-related announcements on USAJobs.gov, which have more than 161,000 applications. Agencies can fill multiple positions through one posting, so the number of needed new hires is likely larger.
“What we are seeing is a stress point on the hiring process, applicant assessments and getting information to hiring managers,” Rix said. “Probably the one area that will become more stressed is once a selection has been made because how fast can we onboard the people that we need. That onboarding process includes how do you provision employees and what assets they need like laptops and cell phones as well as an email address and access to the agency’s network and the other elements that make it possible for them to start working and work remotely?”
This is why GSA’s experience and initial success is such an important line in the sand.
It’s unclear how many other agencies are following suit.
The Department of Homeland Security, for instance, issued new guidance for issuing electronic credentials so new employees can gain network access. But details about how hiring is evolving is hard to come by.
Industry experts say if GSA, DHS and others can make these shifts permanent, it will bring the government much closer to how the private sector already works and open the door to a whole new perspective.
“In the works well before COVID-19, OPM started offering modern, video interviewing and assessment services in 2019. In October, OPM issued guidance urging agencies to adopt commercial best practices and use the technologies,” said Joe Paiva, vice president of HireVue and a former CIO at the International Trade Administration, in an interview. “Uptake was slow at first. However, one large agency with more than a dozen subordinate organizations did start using video interviewing and assessments that same year. Their goals at the time (pre-COVID) were simply to increase the candidate pool in order to attract more and better talent, and save money in the process. When COVID-19 restrictions hit, these early adopters looked like clairvoyants. Their agencies’ hiring programs never missed a beat. Another large component in a different department didn’t have anything in place before COVID-19, but as soon as they heard about the OPM services, they asked for a pilot and had already performed 30-plus secure and structured remote interviews, and started candidate evaluations within a week of their original request.”
John Bersentes, the regional sales manager for federal at Cornerstone OnDemand, added the coronavirus emergency gives agencies not only the opportunity to change their approach, but also their messaging that makes up the end-to-end recruiting process.
“They have to think about work streams and flows, and how to create an engaging candidate experience,” he said. “It has to be something recruiters have to embrace. It can lead to cutting the time to hire, improving the quality of candidates and keeping the retention rate high.”
Bersentes said there are several examples of agencies taking small steps toward this modernized process. He said some are using Microsoft Teams to conduct virtual interviews, and the intelligence community uses video interviews and other tools to help make hiring decisions.
In fact, Ron Sanders, a former chief human capital officer for intelligence community and currently chairman of the Federal Salary Council, said these virtual hiring fairs have been successful over the last decade, bringing in more than 3,500 candidates annually.
He said the IC agencies do some advanced vetting of candidates and then give those who meet the initial requirements an invitation code for the hiring fair.
During the fair, the IC agencies offer a 3D campus tour, set up booths to let the candidates meet recruiters and conduct interviews using avatars.
“Agencies have direct hire authority, though it rarely results in on-the-spot offers,” Sanders said. “The candidates are testing the agencies to see what kind of technology they have, and they want to work for a place that has really good technology.”
Sanders and other experts say this type of approach opens the door to candidates not just in one geographical region, but those across the country.
“This shows there are ways to do this in the brave new world,” Sanders said.
Paiva said agencies need to consider five critical elements as they move toward a modern, online hiring process:
Avue’s Rix said there are cloud-based technologies that agencies could implement easily enough to get them to be more agile and address may of the shortcomings of the current approach.
“One thing agencies need is a robust technology platform that can handle high volumes of applications from over thousands of locations at the same time. The technology also has to have embedded in it digital signature capability, move people forward without traditional labor and time associated with trying to dot all ‘Is’ and cross all the ‘Ts,’ electronically, include better artificial intelligence processes and can be easily scaled when the demand is high and peaking,” she said. “The second thing agencies need to do is let go of those elements of the hiring process that should be stripped away, don’t add value and are not necessarily reliant on any regulatory requirement. Third, they need to get use to delegating a lot of the gate keeping processes because it stops management from acting quickly. They have to understand hiring is a business process and not a regulatory issue.”
Bill Taylor, a senior solutions architect for Cornerstone OnDemand, added the current technologies offer almost the same experience as in-person interviews so there is less and less reason for agencies not to take advantage of them and the coronavirus pandemic only shines a brighter light on this fact.
“You can mimic physical process that we go through from the speed to hire standpoint where instead of booking a room, arranging schedules and applicants having to drive in, now it can be a much more efficient process,” he said. “You still can get a sense of the candidate and what they are capable of. Things like did they wear a tie and shirt versus did they show up in T-shirt? There are many ways that the virtual experience can give you additional information about the candidate so you can make a good decision.”
In the end, the goal is to get to that good decision effectively so you can fill those open positions with quality employees.