Federal Employees News Digest

Federal hiring still 'high risk,' but report offers four keys to smoothing the way

As many feds will tell you, hiring and retention practices at agencies are not ideal. Over the years, report after report from the Government Accountability Office and other reviewing bodies have pressed for change.

“A Time for Talent: Improving Federal Recruiting and Hiring,” the latest in this line—here, by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service—like its forebears analyzes and calls for  improvements. But the PPS report offers too an unusually sharp “best practices” outline, laying out four general areas needing improvement, as well as a few key nuts and bolts management can tighten, without need of new laws or regulatory reforms. 

“While there are a number of well-documented steps that Congress and the Office of Personnel Management could take to reform the recruiting and hiring process,” the report says, “agencies can do a great deal on their own.”

David Ulrich, a professor of organizational behavior and management at the University of Michigan, told FEND that, yes, agencies can make big improvements in recruitment and hiring outcomes simply by renewed attention to low-hanging fruit. Often, they just need to lay out better decision trees. He warns, though, that even with good procedures, “better” is sometimes the best you can do.

“Hiring good people is an art not a science,” Ulrich told FEND. “As Peter Drucker, the godfather of both management and leadership, said, if you hit even 33 percent success on this you’re doing well.”

The PPS report’s critique of the current state of federal hiring and retention is not mild. It sounds an alarm for change—while acknowledging now is a tough time to do it, with management facing the added uphill battle of the current pandemic.

“As our nation works to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus and blunt the pandemic’s economic fallout, the need for an effective and efficient federal government has never been clearer,” the report says. “Indeed, there may be no institution more important to the health, safety and financial wellbeing of the nation than the federal government.”

“We are in a tough time, with COVID—but even in the best of times, hiring is not easy,” Ulrich said, also recognizing the challenge. Yet, Ulrich told FEND, a clear, sharp analysis like the PPS report can be a powerful tool.

Daunting situation

The PPS report takes as its point of departure, the GAO’s “High Risk List,” a biannual report on the most problematic areas in the federal government. Last year’s version of this document—like every one that preceded it for the last two decades—offered “human capital management” as one of the worst problem areas.

“To deliver for the American people now and in the future, and competently respond to inevitable crises, the government must be able to recruit and hire a world-class workforce,” the report states. “Yet the federal recruiting and hiring process is in drastic need of repair.”

Indeed, the report is scathing, calling the situation and the usual hiring process for many applicants “miserable,” involving “confusing,” “cumbersome” and “difficult” elements—citing not least the USAJobs website. Such words echo last year’s GAO report specifically on the state of federal hiring: “[Agencies] have long said competitive hiring procedures are rigid, complex, and lengthy. We found more flexible hiring options were available to agencies but only a small number were used.”

PPS notes that an aging workforce, because it is remains very skilled and able for now, is not the government’s worst Achilles heel today but it threatens to become one tomorrow—and it is a symptom of a government alphabet soup that instead of excellence embodies instead an uninviting system. One statistic tells so much of the story: 45% of feds are over 50 years old, while barely 6% are under 30, the report says. One area that is even grayer is one where attracting younger feds is particularly crucial: computer programming and IT.

If the aging problem for now is just theoretical, after all the graying feds are still in their seats, this one isn’t—it’s about the mission: More than half of feds, the report says, simply do not believe their agency has the resources and staff it needs to get the job done. Now.

So, with the slow burn of inadequate recruitment and retention being joined by the new onslaught of COVID-related crisis, the report wonders out loud whether government leaders can and will act to sturdy and improve H.R. practices through the gathering staffing storm.

“Ultimately, the competency of our government will depend on leaders rethinking how talent needs are assessed and how to effectively recruit, hire, develop and retain a skilled workforce,” the report says—and then subsequently lays out the full range of staffing issues that require attention.

To address the problems, the report observes, it won’t be enough for hiring managers to finally seek, find and engage the right new prospective hires—but also to succeed in doing so in time to avoid disaster. Currently 63% of federal agencies, according to GAO, suffer “gaps in the knowledge and skills” of current employees. This parlous situation exists even though the techniques needed to remedy are well known and gathering dust for years. In any case, the report devotes significant space to these interlocking aims—referred to as strategic planning.

Big troubles—yet with small solutions?

The report enumerates four key weaknesses in agency recruitment and hiring practices—and then offers fixes management can (and sometimes already does) use to mitigate them.

First, there’s a need for better planning. Agencies often lack strategic staffing plans. Instead of methodically analyzing their current and future staffing needs, to date agencies mostly reflexively “backfill” jobs that become vacant, without real analysis on the continuing need for that slot. This could be done by a staffing planner, prior to someone retiring or quitting. For now H.R. people, PPS says, often are stuck on “autopilot”.

The report spotlights several agencies that are already developing staffing plans. At some, the report notes, this is being accomplished centrally, while at others it is done more locally, unit-by-unit or site-by-site.

For example, the Department of Energy’s Bonneville Power Administration unit, with around 3,000 employees, has worked out a staffing plan—making sure every government job fills a need.

Similarly, among the Department of Homeland Security’s many border security units, increasing analysis is becoming part of long-term hiring practice. Aspects of this include “attrition modeling” and staff forecasting, the report notes.

“It’s very important to be forward-looking,” Angela Bailey, DHS’s overall chief human capital officer, told PPS. “If we’re going to rely more heavily on technology to secure our borders—using drones, AI and voice and facial recognition— then you must ask yourself: Do you need more agents who can ride horses and speak Spanish? Or do you need people who can work a joystick and are good with technology? These are the things that we have to think about.”

A second major area of concern is today’s clumsy or inadequate recruiting—requiring not new authority so much as updating and honing techniques. “Often, government relies on antiquated and inefficient ways of finding and attracting employees rather than experimenting with new approaches,” the report says.

On the “attracting” employees front, for example, half the battle could be the government’s need to get out the word that agencies are doing “cool work.” Glassdoor data cited in the report shows prospects are 40% more likely to apply if they know more about the employer and what it does—it helps people imagine themselves in the job. Another big part of winning a bigger pool of prospects is to just improve agency advertising and other messaging. An Air Force recruitment expert in the report discussed other needed messaging improvements: most agencies need to make better use of technology to find and entice appropriate prospective new hires.

Not all recruiting is about messaging, in areas where agencies can’t only rely on technology.  They need to have the human touch.  Along these lines, engaging alums who have left or retired, and using them to help find new prospects—along with more campus outreach in general through other means—are tools lauded in the report. In fact, agencies need to enhance outreach to high schools, former military and elsewhere too, the report says.   

“We have learned, in the hiring piece, you need to set good standards not just technically speaking, but also socially,” Michigan’s Urlich agreed. “You don’t just ask what kind of hard skills a particular job requires, but also what are the needed soft social skills. These too are very important—keep this in mind. Things like: How do we treat people? How do we manage conflict? How do we communicate and share information? Clearly in professional jobs, you have to have technical skills—but you can’t forget these softer skills, in your candidates, too.”

Agencies of course bring tech not just in soliciting for jobs, but to help evaluate these efforts in real time. Some use evidence-based computer programs. For example, DHS has developed a user-friendly hiring tracker program called SMORE, which stores and analyzes all aspects of recruiting and hiring efforts, as well as the attendant costs and success rates.

A third area the report lists as lacking—though obvious—is often overlooked: Staying innovative, and developing new means—technological and otherwise—to find and recruit high quality hires. Here, again, PPS reports that several new data-tracking technologies can help. Agencies must use “new ways of appraising applicants, generating higher-quality shortlists while continuing to adhere to regulations that give certain candidates preference, such as veterans,” the report states.

A fourth piece of the report urges management to face another often invisible asset: Great talent is often just next door, yet gets away! Strong candidates for many agency jobs has already been recruited into government, but to another agency. Agencies need to keep an eye on trying to attract and transfer talent leaving other federal organizations—and ideally before such employees leave government. In many cases agencies already have “the talent they need to deliver on their missions,” the report notes, and indeed “growing talent internally is another approach that agencies should consider.”

“Our hope is that this report and the dashboard inspire all stakeholders to think creatively about recruiting and hiring,” the PPS report concludes, “and take bold action to ensure that the federal workforce, on which the American people rely so heavily, is up to the task.”

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