Federal Employees News Digest

Fresh Take: Code Black… The Results of Federal Hiring Reform Are In: The Top 3 Reasons Why Nothing Works

The Fall 2015 MSPB newsletter, Issues of Merit, declares, “The Federal Civil Service Hiring System Is Out of Balance.”

The article points to the gender imbalance in civil service hiring and blames veterans’ preference, disparaging vets by calling them “minimally qualified,” and promoting the notion that veterans’ preference is a non-merit factor that allows vets to “block the list” and make it “effectively impossible to hire the preferred candidate.” MSPB even manages to mislead when using the term “disabled veteran.”

Veterans are out, women are in. (Oh, but thanks for your service and all.) The late, famous philosopher Yogi Berra would probably say this about MSPB, “They hit from both sides of the plate … they’re amphibious." 

But MSPB misses the point entirely, using grade-school pie charts to take tackle the enigmatic federal hiring process—and ignoring three real reasons the hiring process is out of whack.

Problem One. In 2010, someone decided it was important to hire vets and convinced the president to sign an executive memorandum declaring it mandatory to use a process called category rating to hire more of them. On top of that, OPM issued guidance stating that applicants would not be scored, but placed in broad groups like “best qualified,” “highly qualified,” and “not qualified.”

This last point is important for two reasons. First, it’s not true. Applicants in fact are scored to place them in the broad groups. But instead of ranking them in score order, once they are in a group, it’s random—everyone in the group is considered equal, except for compensably disabled veterans. Those vets are placed in the best-qualified group regardless of their score as long as they meet basic qualification requirements. 

Second, compensably disabled veterans are considered best qualified when, in fact, they may be in that group by virtue of their veterans’ preference status and not their score. 

To fix Problem One, simplify the policy by scoring all applicants and listing them in score order. In the case of ties, break the tie with veterans’ preference and put the vet ahead of the non-vet. Use a cut-off score to create the best qualified group and let hiring managers choose,

If a simple signature in a memorandum can change veterans’ preference from the rule of three to category rating, then it can authorize this methodology just as easily. 

Problem Two: OPM forced agencies to take down their pages and direct all applicants to USAJOBS. Solution: Allow agencies to run their own careers pages, outreach websites and social media, and rebuild their recruitment programs.

Vanderbilt University did a survey of federal SES and captured an excellent quote about federal recruitment, “Here in the [omitted], we have a vast pool of entry-level (and more advanced) talent, but the federal government’s arcane procedures make it almost impossible to reach these wonderful candidates. An example of this is the most user-unfriendly place on the planet to look for and the only way to apply for a GS-level job in our agency: the USAjobs website.”

This comes after endless streams of promises to make USAJOBS better—an effort that persists even after OPM’s horrific security breach—and it’s not helping.

USAJOBS is a job-swapping site keyed to current federal employees. It’s clearly not a recruitment site. Catching the brass ring has become more difficult for non-feds because, among other things, the site promotes duplicative job postings that mislead applicants into thinking there are twice as many jobs.

The antidote to Problem Two is to stop the practice of “post and pray” and begin recruiting again. While it does no harm to concurrently post to USAJOBS, it does great harm to post only to USAJOBS.

Problem Three: OPM has a very poor showing as a policy leader. The last three directors have promoted OPM as a “toolmaker” rather than pursue its statutory mission—policy leadership. This has had a catastrophic effect on the qualification standards that agencies are required to use during initial applicant screening.

What MSPB characterizes as “minimally qualified” is unfortunately the unintended consequence of OPM’s failure to issue substantive and rigorous screening criteria to ensure that candidates are fully proficient versus minimally qualified. 

Problem Three has a readily available solution: HR practitioners and hiring managers need to augment today’s broad-based guidelines. There are no barriers to adding criteria that are specific, fact-based, job-related, and rigorous to any recruiting action, even at the basic qualifications stage. What is important is that the agency show that solid, merit-based processes were used to derive the criteria and that they meet all of the requirements in the Merit System and the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures. 

Applying this practice alone will increase the quality of the assessment process and applicant pool. Even if Problem One is not resolved, this will, at a minimum, ensure that all those in the “best qualified” pool are fully proficient, not merely minimally qualified.

It’s time to end the grand experiment with category rating. A simplified process that retains the Merit System and honors veterans’ preference does not have to be a conflicted process. You can have both and increase efficiency. 


Reader comments

Fri, Nov 6, 2015 Geust

Veterans' preference should be discontinued. It started when middle-aged people were drafted to fight a war and were removed from established careers. Those people are gone now. Disabled veterans are given free medical care and a cash stipend, and in some jurisdictions other favored treatment, as compensation for their injuries. If they can do the job, they shouldn't need special favors. Time in grade should also be done away with. Some people come in at a low grade, thinking they'll have opportunities to advance to something they're qualified for, and it doesn't happen because of time in grade.

Tue, Oct 20, 2015

The biggest problem with category rating is the self-assessment. It is designed to weed out the honest and the humble, leaving us only with the deceptive and the arrogant. You have to answer "I am an expert" to nearly every question, or you end up with a score below the cut-off of 95%. Your resume won't even be glanced at if your score is 94 or below. The self-assessment is the most efficient way to eliminate all of the best candidates, excepting that one actual expert who might slip through. But if that expert is a non-vet or a non-preference vet, he most likely won't be referred, not if there are enough preference vets to fill the positions. Self-assessment simply does not work for finding the best people.

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