The government’s change-resistant hiring system

In 1977, on a lark, I sent in a job application to the CIA. Being a highly keen observer of things, I though I could do good there. My rejection letter came a year later, after I’d forgotten all about ever applying.

Federal hiring hasn’t improved much.

The soon-to-expire Obama administration has made several runs at improving federal hiring. As Nicole Ogrysko reports, the government managed to wrestle the average down to 80 days, but it’s crept steadily back to 100. It’s like trying to make a permanent dent in Super Stuff.

Here’s an odd thing. This new Government Accountability Office report shows that, as a group, the young millennials, kids really, 25 and under, have the highest average level of job engagement of any age group among federal employees. Did it take an average of 100 days to hire them, or did they come in through some fast-track authority? Impossible to tell. But if those reared in the age of instant hook-up site Tinder (where no one knows if you’re a dog) can find satisfaction in the vast federal bureaucracy, then clearly the hiring process is not doing justice to the jobs.

Industry is no less careful in how it hires people with skills comparable to what federal agencies need. Maybe it runs  processes in parallel that the government does serially. A candidate may face a series of interviews in a given visit to a company. Reference and background checks may happen simultaneously. Plus, industry typically has fewer check-box mandates to follow, fewer institutional preferences. Federal managers have 105 authorities covering 85 hiring codes. It’s nuts.

In service of avoiding any risk that might cause a challenge to a hire, federal agencies take the time required to hire as freely from risk as they can.

So far, the government has tried revving its complicated machinery. The result: An improvement both modest and unsustainable.

Sometimes leadership cites the GS system, instituted many decades ago. But that governs what happens to people after they are hired, not the hiring process itself. The Office of Personnel Management’s hiring excellence campaign emphasizes training, a perennial answer. But training people in better using a Byzantine apparatus will simply produce another yo-yo effect.

There’s no time to lose, either. Other countries are catching up. Just this morning the European Space Agency had a first.  It landed — more accurately, neatly crashed — a spacecraft named Rosetta onto a comet.

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