Fixing the Federal Hiring Process: Deus ex Machina

“Think! Why think? We have computers to do that for us.”

Jean Rostand

This is the first of an occasional series on the Federal hiring process. I will address some of the problems, how they developed, and what we can do to make it better. There are many aspects of the Civil Service and Federal employment that are subject to robust debate. That the hiring process still needs significant reform is not one of them. I haven’t talked with one person in the past couple of years who believes the process works well. Filling jobs take too long, the Federal workforce believes the process for selecting people is rigged, and many potential job-seekers give up on Federal employment because the process is so daunting.

Let’s start with technology and how it has been used and abused to make the hiring process worse. I titled this post Deus ex Machina because I think it fits the situation we have now. Deus ex Machina is a latin term that literally means “God from the machine.” It is commonly used in the theater to describe an artificial or improbable device to resolve the difficulties of a plot. Both the literal and theatrical definitions fit the situation with technology and hiring.

Years ago the hiring process relied almost entirely on a lengthy application called an SF-171. Applicants attached an even longer narrative addressing Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSAs) that were listed in the vacancy announcement. A Staffing Specialist or rating panel would review the documents, assign scores and rank the candidates. Virtually no one liked the process. It was slow, required applicants to spends many hours writing KSA responses, and consumed too much time in HR and rating panels. On top of that, the “crediting plans” agencies used to rate the applications were confidential. Applicants could not see them because the belief was that they would falsify their applications if they knew what we were looking for. In effect, applicants were forced to respond to a questionnaire where they were told the subject of the questions, but not the questions themselves.

Many of us believed there were better solutions. In 1991, at the Defense Electronics Supply Center in Dayton, Ohio, we looked at the problem and decided the solution was to open up the questions and let applicants see them. Rather than using KSAs, we would use a questionnaire that asked people to respond to specific questions. The process was not automated, so Staffing Specialists or panels would review the questionnaires and a simplified application we had developed. They determined whether the applicants’ responses to the questions were supported by the experience they described. The process was much faster, far more open, and resulted in a hiring process that was viewed more positively. In the next few years, other agencies independently came to the same conclusion. The process also lent itself it automation in a big way. As more agencies used questionnaires, OPM and the private sector added questionnaires to their tools that facilitated job announcements and receipt of applications. It became less burdensome for someone to apply for a Federal job. The story should have ended at that point with “And they all lived happily ever after.” It did not.

It turns out the KSAs were only a small part of the problem with the hiring process. The systems agencies were using were not interfaced and there was no way to easily use the application for one agency in another agency’s system. Even worse, if one agency advertised a position and received 500 applicants, they could not share those applications with other agencies that were recruiting for the same type of job in the same area.  I will address that and other aspects of hiring reform in greater detail in future posts, today’s focus is technology. As one of the early advocates of using these systems, I had high hopes for what they could do. I assumed they would be used as decision support tools. I thought applicants would be honest in how they respond to questionnaires. And I though HR offices would always ensure the quality of applicants they refer remains high. I was wrong.

I have been surprised by the number of people who tell me how easy it is to game the questionnaires. “It’s easy to figure out which response gets the most points!” Well, of course it is. It isn’t a test – it is a description of experience. The process relies on the integrity of the applicants. It also relies on HR Specialists conducting a thorough job analysis to ensure the questions are valid. While some of the hiring systems provide support for job analysis, the cut and paste feature is used too frequently. Most critically, it relies on HR Specialists or a subject matter expert (SME) to review the resumes and provide some quality control. If an applicant says s/he has experience weaving baskets, yet nothing in the resume says anything about it, they are supposed to not get credit for it. If the applicant says s/he has a year of qualifying experience at the required grade level and the resume does not support it, they are not supposed to get credit for it. That is Staffing 101 and the hiring tools provide the capability to do that kind of quality review. What surprises is me most is the people in HR who have told me it is improper to do that kind of review. In one agency where I worked, I was told it was a violation of merit system principles to have SMEs review the resumes before issuing a certificate. That idea is rubbish and it leads to hiring managers having to do their own screening of applicants to try to weed out the people who are obviously not qualified. It is probably not very comforting for applicants, but hiring managers generally do not like the process any more than they do. Nor do many HR Specialists.

We got here in part by gutting HR offices in the 1990s. As part of the National Performance Review, a decision was made that HR and Contracting shops were “Control” organizations that needed to be downsized. That downsizing would be made possible by dramatically eliminating or rewriting rules that made so many HR and Contracting jobs necessary. In HR, the Federal Personnel Manual was eliminated and more authority was delegated to agencies, but the underlying Civil Service laws and regulations were relatively untouched. HR and contracting shops were downsized by as much as 50%. Many HR offices were unable to hire new staff for several years. At the same time, technology was coming along that promised to make the hiring process better, faster and cheaper. It was a “Perfect Storm” that came together to harm, rather than help, the hiring process. Agencies became over-reliant on the technology because they had little choice. As the hiring restrictions eased, new staff were brought in who learned to work in ways that reinforced the idea that technology can replace judgment.

So, we have gotten to the point where some agency HR folks think anything that comes out of the machine has to be sent to the hiring manager. Hence the “God from the machine.” We have taken tools that are designed to support a process and eliminate sorting through mounds of paper, and used them, at least in some agencies, to replace judgment with checkboxes. That is bad for the applicants, bad for the hiring managers, bad for the agencies and bad for the taxpayers. As we consider ways to reform the hiring process, we need to start by clarifying the roles of HR Specialists and the roles of the systems that are designed to support them. We also need to make certain HR offices have enough well-trained staffing experts to do the work. Maybe then we can get some real reform.



Fear Not: The Case for Shared Services in Government

The Federal government, much like any other organization, either provides for itself or buys a wide range of overhead services to support its operations. Overhead is not a derogatory term – it is just the term that is applied to services that are necessary to support the mission of an agency. Missions do not get accomplished without overhead services. While overhead services such as Human Resources, Financial Management, or Contracting support follow laws and regulations that are remarkably consistent across agencies, most agencies have dedicated internal service providers. The result is a level of redundancy and cost that diverts scarce resources to overhead functions rather than agency missions. Faced with decreasing budgets and shocks such as sequestration, agencies can no longer afford to carry out business-as-usual with respect to common support services. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel challenged his Department and its stakeholders to “…challenge all past assumptions…” and “put everything on the table.”

“We need to challenge all past assumptions, and we need to put everything on the table.  For example, it is already clear to me that any serious effort to reform and reshape our defense enterprise must confront the principal drivers of growth in the department’s base budget – namely acquisitions, personnel costs, and overhead.”

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel – April 3, 2013

One good example of overhead services that whould be “on the table” is Human Resources/EEO. Looking only at the number of Federal employees in those occupations, we see 2% of the Federal workforce in the HR/EEO (41,929 employees) job series. Because both HR and EEO offices also employ people in other job series, such as IT, budget, and administration, my experience is that as many as a quarter of the people in HR offices are not in HR series. That means another half percent of the Federal workforce are HR in non-HR job series. The number may be higher. Assuming that conservative number, 2.5% of the Federal workforce exists to provide HR services to the government.

Federal Employees in HR/EEO Job Series

Job Series

# of Employees

Average Salary

Total Cost














+ 30% Fringe


Total Cost



If we look only at the costs of the Human Resources/EEO workforce (in salary and fringe benefits cost of employees in the 201 (HR Specialist), 203 (HR Clerk and Assistant) and 260 (Equal Employment Opportunity) job series is more than $4 billion. HR/EEO organizations also employee people in other job series, such as budget, clerical and information technology, and the common “catch-all” 301 job series. Use of the 301 series for HR has increased in recent years as a way of reducing the apparent number of HR professionals, and to support grades that are often not as easily obtained in the more prescriptive 201, 203 and 260 job series. In addition to the non-HR/EEO job series, HR/EEO service organizations also purchase contract support. The number of dollars devoted to such services is difficult to identify, government-wide it is certainly in the hundreds of millions and perhaps more. Because the costs of common services are buried in agency budgets, the number is rarely examined as a single cost. The time has come to begin that examination and find ways to reduce the cost to a more manageable level.

There are many side effects of failure to consolidate overhead services. Chief among them is the lack of money for training staff and modernizing systems and processes. An agency with redundant overhead organizations will cut costs by taking away everything but salary dollars and leaving the overhead functions with few resources to do anything other than pay their employees. It is rare to find an HR office that is adequately resourced, even when the agency is spending more on such services than would seem necessary. The agency wonders why it is not getting great support, the employees in the support organizations wonder why they cannot get training or adequate tools to do their work, and everyone wonders why it does not get better. An agency, its employees and its HR staff are far better off with one or two well-staffed, trained and resourced HR offices than they are with ten marginally staffed and resourced organizations that struggle to provide good service.

I have heard people saying for years that services cannot be consolidated because their agency is unique. While it may make us feel better to say we are unique, the truth is most agencies are not. The plethora of different rules, processes and systems is the result of choice rather than absolute necessity. Although agencies tend to create their own operating policies and directives for HR services, those rules are usually created because they can be, not because of a compelling business argument. Not only that, attempts to consolidate HR/EEO services are typically met with fierce resistance. When the Department of Defense proposed consolidating HR services in the 1980s, one of the services responded with the objection that their civilian HR services were at the heart of their warfighting capabilities. When faced with that type of opposition, the proposal was dropped. Eventually, the DoD elected to “regionalize” its HR services in a way that protected most of the parochial interests that objected to the previous consolidation proposal. The result was a model that few DoD leaders and virtually no one in HR would consider to be effective or efficient.

When the Defense Logistics Agency proposed a real consolidation of HR services, Pentagon officials supported it as a means of seeing if consolidation could actually work. Studies of the DLA HR transformation have shown it was completely successful, reduced costs, and dramatically improved the quality of services. The proposed transformation was not universally accepted in DLA. In fact, many affected managers, field Commanders and Senior Executives were vehemently opposed. One SES referred to it as “the most brutal proposal I’ve ever seen.” Another said he would rather have bad service he controlled than good service someone else controlled. One General said it was doomed to failure and would generate no savings, even if it could be implemented, which he doubted. They were wrong. Not only did the consolidation work, it saved money and provided more resources for the consolidated offices to get their work done. Many of the savings came from elimination of redundant management structures. Rather than having seven HR offices, each with an HR Director, staff directors, and support teams for each, there were two HR offices. Rather than having seven sets of HR tools, we had one. Rather than having seven sets of operating procedures, we had one. DLA is not the only example of effective HR consolidation. Agencies as diverse as the Department of the Treasury, NASA, the Department of Commerce and the Department of the Interior have had similar successes. That kind of consolidation and cost reduction is not radical. It is not risky, and it is not new and different. It is a tried and proven approach to delivering services.

What was driving those objections, and what bold leaders in government will face today, is fear. Fear of loss of control. Fear of loss of influence. Fear of failure. Fear of services that are worse than before. Overcoming those fears is critical if government is going to transform itself today. If those fears drive debates about overhead services, imagine how people will respond when asked to do the same thing for mission services. How will any real consolidation of services, elimination of redundant missions and consolidation of agencies take place? We have proven in multiple agencies that support services can be effectively and efficiently consolidated, yet that knowledge has not been translated into government wide measures to dramatically transform support services. It is time to take that step.