By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

KSAs and hiring reform in government

There is a nice spirit of innovation coming from John Berry at the Office of Personnel Management regarding ways to improve the federal hiring process. (Full disclosure:  My wife Shelley Metzenbaum's job at the Office of Management and Budget include working on human resources issues from OMB's perspective.)
Government Executive reported yesterday that Berry wants to eliminate the knowledge/skills/abilities essays that are currently part of the federal hiring process and create a government-unique "island" in a world where people normally apply for jobs by submitting resumes. In the rest of the world, resumes are used (often they are analyzed automatically using various software packages) to winnow down a group of applicants, and the smaller group then supplies additional information. The KSA system favors insiders already familiar with the special world of government hiring, and it discourages applicants who have many choices from going through a special effort to apply for government jobs, favoring those with fewer choices who are almost by definition weaker candidates.
Apparently Berry also wants to seek legislation that simply eliminates the so-called "rule of three," where the agency's personnel system generates a list of three applicants for the actual hiring manager, in favor of a category ranking system that gives the hiring manager more room to choose among applicants.
These are good steps, but key questions remain. One key to improved hiring is to get hiring managers themselves more involved in the process, because it is the hiring manager who will actually be using the people who are hired, and the hiring manager is in the best position to inform applicants about the organization they seek to join. This is the key reason, I think, to eliminate the rule of three. But that is a change that needs to be driven by agency leadership, not by OPM (though OPM can and should play a cheerleading role). The insufficient involvement of many hiring managers in the hiring process is an example of problems with the role of supervisors in government.

I am also not sure why Berry seeks legislation to eliminate the rule of three. Second -- and also something that agencies need to work on (with, again, only cheerleading from OPM) -- a great hiring process will count for little if we don't pay attention to the quality of work we offer new hires;  the biggest danger in the new hiring wave is that we will disappoint our new hires and they will quickly leave public service. Finally, on a more technical note, the requirement to use the rule of three was eliminated in legislation several years ago but, weirdly,  hasn't been picked up by many agencies.  Why can't the president simply issue a presidential memorandum to Cabinet secretaries directing them to eliminate the rule of three in their organizations?
It was also instructive to read the many reader comments to the Government Executive article. Lots of readers approved the change, but also some dissenting voices -- and support for the status quo -- came from readers identifying themselves as government HR specialists.  It has been my impression that, compared with contracting people, HR specialists in government have been more wedded to the status quo and less customer and mission-oriented;  some of these comments are consistent with that perception. This does not bode well for the internal improvement effort necessary for improving the hiring process.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Mar 18, 2010 at 7:26 PM

Reader Comments

Fri, Jun 4, 2010 ep_vet

Most of the changes included in the president's memorandum were included in an MSPB report from 1995 titled "The Rule of Three in Federal Hiring:
Boon or Bane?" (From that report, the Rule of Three was the result of an Attorney General decision in 1871 to provide managers with GREATER choice. Up until them, most managers had a choice of ONE!)

Fri, Jun 4, 2010 ep_vet

Private industry STARTS the recruitment process with resume search but I have never worked ANYWHERE (5 agencies) where we do it at all! The resume sharing proposed in the President's memorandum would be a great addition to the recruiter’s tools. The ultimate goal for recruiters is to ensure that the hiring manager has a rich supply of highly qualified candidates. However, once a selection is made, what happens to those other high quality applicants? In the past, there may have been some informal sharing of top candidates between specialists and even some reuse of selection certificates for other vacancies. However, in most cases, resumes and applicant packages were filed in case folders, stored and disposed of according to NARA guidelines. Under the president’s memorandum, that practice will change and OPM will put in place mechanisms for sharing those quality candidates between and among agencies and departments who could then be invited to apply for a suitable agency job.
Also, old resume search technology was based on Boolean expression but a new and better technology became available in 2010. Semantic search, also called contextual search, has an intelligence that enables it to “understand” jargon, acronyms, abbreviations and even misspellings at the same time it associates various words that describe a competency as being equivalent to that competency. Semantic search is straightforward and easy to use and eliminates the need to craft and successively test complex Boolean expressions. Best of all, it greatly increased recruiter productivity. The big question is... can we change?

Tue, Mar 23, 2010 Steve Kelman

On the rule of three: yes, the requirement that agencies use the Rule of 3 was eliminated ggovernmentwide in the workforce provisions of the Homeland Security Act of 2002. But few agencies have taken advantage of the change, which I think -- this will probably get me in hot water with HR specialists to say -- reflects poorly on the Hr community's willingess to change. Given that the Rule of 3 is already not required by statute, I believe that the President should simply issue an executive memorandum to cabinet secretaries announcing a new policy on this, rather than waiting for legislation.

Tue, Mar 23, 2010 Mike Derrios Arlington, VA

I agree that hiring managers need to step up to the plate. I also believe that managers in the Acquisition space do not receive much support from their HR counterparts. Something that is severely lacking in the federal hiring process is the proper use of psychological contracts to set expectations and establish mutual trust between employer and employee in the critical first year of employment. I think all federal managers need to understand what a psychological contract is and how it can benefit them with regards to retention and employee engagement. A good "contract" that is not just transactional (e.g., based on money) but also relational will establish the necessary buy-in to an organization's culture, ideals, values etc. and set the tone for the interpersonal relationship between employer/employee. There are residual benefits for doing this as well. For example, it also sets the stage for providing better performance feedback which is an area where many managers struggle. I also agree that hiring managers (especially in Acquisition) need to provide their employees with meaningful work assignments that give them a line of sight with the mission. Otherwise, we lose them in less than two years these days. And managers need to get creative in order to demonstrate and reinforce the value that their employees are providing when some work assignments don't necessarily lend themselves to tangible results. Another wise investment would be for agency CHCOs and CAOs to jointly-develop an immersion program of sorts for acquisition professionals. Every agency is different and you can't expect someone from a DoD environment to readily adapt to a civilian agency environment right away. This would be good for interns as well given that they're walking into a career that will demand them to acquire and retain knowledge in fiduciary, legal and business disciplines to perform as Contracting professionals. I realize some may think psychological contracts and corporate culture immersion programs might be a stretch but it's time for us as managers to get innovative. After all, OPM did declare the 1102 series as a critical workforce in 2007, right?

Mon, Mar 22, 2010

Are you sure that there has been legislation issued to eliminate the Rule of 3? I know the Managerial Flexibility Act of 2001 proposed this but it didn't pass in the house.

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