Improving fed hiring and retention, in four easy steps
- By Nathan Abse
- Sep 04, 2020
As many feds will tell you, hiring and retention practices at agencies are not ideal. And over the years, report after report from the Government Accountability Office and other reviewing bodies have buttressed this view, and pressed for change.
“A Time for Talent: Improving Federal Recruiting and Hiring,” by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, also analyzes the problem. But the PPS report offers some of the most user-friendly “best practices” of these, and offering four areas in need of improvement and some ways to accomplish that right now—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.”
The PPS report’s critique of the current state of federal hiring and retention is not mild. The “federal recruiting and hiring process is in drastic need of repair,” it says.
PPS sounds an alarm for change while acknowledging the severe challenge 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.”
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.
PPS highlights especially the government’s aging workforce. Although it remains skilled and able for now, attrition and retirement threaten to become a much bigger problem, and soon—a symptom of a government alphabet soup that instead of being a hot magnet for excellent new hires too often is a slow-moving, stumbling talent repellent. One statistic is especially revealing: 45% of feds are over 50 years old, while barely 6% are under 30. And areas where new blood is especially needed—such as computer programming and IT—are instead even grayer.
The four areas will be familiar to most feds. First, there’s a need for better planning. Instead of methodically analyzing their current and future staffing needs, many agencies reflexively “backfill” jobs that become vacant, without evaluating the continuing need for this or that slot. Fixing this would require developing a staffing plan, so whether to re-fill a job or not is worked out prior to someone retiring or quitting. For now H.R. people, PPS says, often are simply stuck on “autopilot”.
A second major area needing improvement is often clumsy or inadequate messaging and recruiting—in need of updated techniques. “Often, government relies on antiquated and inefficient ways of finding and attracting employees rather than experimenting with new approaches,” the report says. Fed agencies need to get out the word that they are doing “cool work,” the report says.
A third area is often overlooked: outdated ways and means of maintaining internal records on the recruiting effort—and of handling the final selections. Developing new means—technological and otherwise—to find and finally to select high quality hires is currently not a focus at many agencies. 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 is slipping away. In other words, candidates for many agency jobs are already recruited into government, but at another agency. Agencies need to keep an eye on trying to attract and transfer talent that might be leaving other federal organizations.
“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.”
“Hiring good people is an art not a science,” David Ulrich, a professor of management at the University of Michigan, told FedSoup. “As Peter Drucker, the godfather of both management and leadership, said, if you hit even 33 percent success on this you’re doing well.”
“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 said, a clear, sharp analysis like the PPS report can be a powerful tool.