Managing With Blinders On

We can all agree the government keeps a lot of records. In fact, just the HR records are enough to fill a lot of warehouses – both literal and electronic. The basic HR record is the Official Personnel Folder. It includes a record of every personnel action for an employee, along designations of beneficiaries, appointment affidavits, job applications, college transcripts, training records, awards, and more. That is just the start of the government’s HR record keeping. The Office of Personnel Management and agencies that run their own hiring process keep millions of job applications. Add to that the job descriptions, injury compensation records, disciplinary actions, performance plans and ratings, grievances, training records in learning management systems, and countless other HR records, and there is a wealth of information that could be used to make HR programs far more effective.

So – what do we do with all of the information in those systems of records? For the most part, nothing. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the processes that produce the records, but little to nothing on analyzing and using the data for constructive purposes. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

The government uses a hiring process that collects more information on applicants than the typical private sector employer. Every HR office uses one of a handful of systems to manage those applications, evaluate them, issue referral certificates to hiring managers, and record selections. The applicant data could be a rich source of information that could be used to improve the hiring process, but it typically goes to waste. Agencies receive the applications, rate them, do interviews, make selections, on-board the new employee, then let the data sit in the system, unused, until it is time for it to be purged.

Agencies also maintain performance information on all of their employees. Performance management processes are supposed to identify who is doing well and who needs improvement (how well they do that is another matter). Given that we have a hiring process that is supposed to identify the best candidates for a position and a performance process that rates how well they perform, why are agencies not using the information to see if the hiring processes are actually working? It would not be that difficult to develop analytics that look at key data from the hiring process and compare that to performance once the employee is on the job. When an agency uses a given assessment, does the predicted performance actually occur? Are there questions that are more likely to predict performance? Do applicants from one hiring authority (e.g., merit promotion) compare to those from another (e.g., VEOA)?

Every agency has records that tell them who is leaving, but few agencies analyze the data to predict turnover, let alone comparing that data with information from the hiring process. Do new hires from particular sources turn over faster than normal? Or at a lower rate? Is it a problem? If so, what is the underlying cause and what can be done to fix it? At the Defense Logistics Agency, we found a much higher turnover rate among hispanic new hires in our corporate intern program. A recent report from OPM says the same thing about Veteran hires in some agencies. Analysis of the hiring data, employee surveys such as the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, and performance data can help explain what causes the problem and how it might be fixed. That analysis is not happening in many agencies.

The information locked in systems that are viewed primarily as “records” rather than data could answer a lot of questions and help agencies manage better. It could improve the hiring process, identify contributors to morale issues, improve retention, and and generally help agencies manage based on data rather than seat-of-the pants feelings. Our failure to use information that is available to us means we are often managing with blinders on. The information is there, the world around us is visible, but we choose not to look at it. If we truly want to improve all of these processes, we have to start making use of the data that we already have and stop treating the data just as records.

4 thoughts on “Managing With Blinders On

  1. CIV says:

    There is one entity mining those records (unused by those who collect if) and that is the entity that mined OMB for millions of clearance applications and general employee records (such as SF-50s, retirement forms, and evaluations). In the hands of US government agencies, these records are a liability to their workforce, not an asset to professional management of the government.


    • John Tomlin says:

      I think that Jeff is talking about DATA, not personal information. Security of personal information has nothing to do with the real need to be able to analyze, understand, and make use of workforce data in its aggregate form.


  2. John Tomlin says:

    Timely posting! After having spent 34 years of active Federal Civil Service with the Navy and a Joint Defense Agency and now working as a support contractor for the “other side ” of the house, it’s become crystal clear to me that DoD, in general, does a much, much better job of using HR information to resolve problems or just to get different viewpoints on its workforce. What we routinely did with our HR data at NSWC Carderock would be tantamount to speaking a foreign language at the agency I’m supporting now. I’m not sure why this substantial difference exists, but in my experience it certainly does.

    As an aside, during my joint agency tenure, we observed the same high turnover rate among Hispanic hires to our professional career program, when compared to other categories of new hires into the same program. That was a bitter pill to swallow, since we spent more recruiting dollars per Hispanic hire than we did for any other category. We did follow up and found out that the cause(s) were essentially beyond our control, so we just sucked it up and kept trying.

    Keep blogging! We appreciate all your efforts.

    John Tomlin


  3. William von Braun says:

    The article makes a compelling case for analyzing data to address a multitude of human resources issues. At the same time, making effective policy decisions using such analyses in recruitment and staffing is incrediblychallenging. We no longer are able to hire the best qualified candidates as a result of the steady disintegration of merit principles, due principally to the imposition of increasingly intrusive veteran preference requirements. Yes, a veteran should receive a reasonable number of additional points in a competitive hiring action. This is a far cry from forcing a supervisor to select one or more veterans who are placed on top of a selection certificate and effectively block consideration of more highly qualified non-veterans.


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