OPM offers new, streamlined application options for SES candidates

Agencies have a few new alternatives now for submitting Senior Executive Service applications to the Office of Personnel Management, according to new guidance from OPM.

It’s an attempt to shorten the Qualification Review Board (QRB), the process Senior Executive Service candidates must complete to ensure they’ve met the right requirements and have the proper skills to become a member of the SES.

“While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, agencies should seek to eliminate or minimize application requirements that may deter qualified candidates from applying, when it is possible to do so and still have a merit staffing process that can be validated,” OPM said.

OPM is encouraging agencies to consider a “resume-based application method” rather than one of the three different submission methods they’ve used in the past. Agencies have complained the applications, which require the candidate to write pages of material, have often deterred qualified employees from applying to executive positions.

Agencies should specify in their SES vacancy announcements that they’re looking only for a resume, which the applicant should use to demonstrate their proficiency in the Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs), the guidance said.

“This method is often best-suited for the senior-most positions requiring highly-experienced executives whose accomplishments can be readily presented,” the guidance said. “The resume-based method may also be appropriate for low to mid-level SES positions if the hiring agency may want to mitigate the likelihood of difficulties in achieving an adequate volume of applications, based on past experience in filing identical or similar positions.”

In the past, OPM required agencies to submit evidence that the SES candidate has met ECQs through one of three ways: a 10-page written statement, a QRB template or an accomplishment record.

Of the traditional application methods, the 10-page statement typically takes candidates the longest time to complete, while the template puts the smallest burden on the applicant. The accomplishment record falls somewhere in between.

The guidance, which Acting OPM Director Beth Cobert issued March 11, comes after the agency extensively reviewed the QRB. It’s the latest in a series of new memos addressing President Barack Obama’s executive order on the SES, which gave agencies new requirements to recruit, retain and develop senior executives.

Agencies have 120 days now to review and make improvements to their SES hiring processes, Cobert said in the memo. At the same time, OPM will begin designing and testing new tools to help agencies improve hiring and the QRB, with the goal of using fewer written materials during the assessment process.

“These innovations will include the development of enhanced leadership assessment methods, as well as alternative methods of documenting executive qualifications during the agency hiring process (e.g., video-based documentation) that could be used to satisfy the needs of QRB assessors,” the guidance said.

OPM said it’s “urgently” looking for agency volunteers to test and voice their feedback on new SES hiring tools.

Is the QRB still valuable?

The QRB isn’t going away, despite “numerous requests and suggestions [that] have been made in recent years to either eliminate or delegate the QRB process to agencies,” the guidance said.

Current statute does not give OPM the authority to delegate the qualifications process to agencies, nor the ability to get rid of it altogether.

But OPM said it’s looking for ways to cut down on the QRB processing times and the administrative burdens that come with cases that need revisions and rewrites.

On average, it took OPM 15 days to process 903 QRB cases in fiscal 2015. The agency spent an average of 12 days to process 776 cases in 2014. Processing times rose on average by about three to four days for submissions that needed a rewrite over both years, the guidance said.

OPM approves roughly 98 percent of all QRB submissions, the guidance said. Yet even with such high approval ratings, the agency insists the process is still relevant, and the high rating shows that OPM generally tries not to second-guess an agency’s hiring decision.

“This is also a function of the value provided by the QRB as a control — constituting a check to discourage attempts to circumvent merit staffing procedures or selections of candidates for initial appointment to the SES for reasons other than merit, and to help ensure career SES appointments remain free of political influence or other improprieties and comply with applicable civil service law,” the guidance said.

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