Giving Thanks for Federal Workers

Every year at this time I like to thank federal workers for all that they do. I spent 33 years working with great public servants who make a difference every day. I still appreciate all of the work federal employees do to serve the American people.

It is Thanksgiving week and before everyone heads out of the office to take a well-deserved holiday, I want to give thanks for our Federal workforce. Fed-bashing may be a popular sport in some places, but not here. I believe that majority of federal employees do a great job, care about their work, do more than is necessary, support their co-workers in times or need, and provide tremendous benefit to the American people. Let’s look at just a few things Federal employees do.

In the Department of the Treasury, they print our money and make our coins, while in Homeland Security the Secret Service protects against counterfeiting that could undermine our economy.

In the Department of Agriculture, they run crop insurance programs that protect our farmers from financial ruin.

In the Postal Service, they deliver mail to our doors. Our mail service is so reliable that many of us forget what a massive logistical undertaking it really is.

In the Department of State, they engage in and support diplomacy to ensure our interests are protected.

In the Department of Labor, they safeguard the interest of workers across America.

In the Department of Defense, they support our troops. Our armed forces could not carry out their mission without the support of 700,000 federal employees who provide supplies, rebuild ships, aircraft and other equipment, provide IT, financial management and personnel support, conduct intelligence work, and carry out countless other tasks that enable our men and women in uniform to carry out their missions.

In the Department of Commerce, they ensure that intellectual property rights are protected, through patents and trademarks.

In the Department of Health and Human Services, they protect against the spread of communicable diseases, through research and other programs conducted by federal workers or funded by the government.

They support our judicial and legislative branches of government, in addition to the work they do in the executive branch.

In Departments and Agencies, large and small, they protect our food supply, environment and medicines. Federal workers inspect our food, promote agriculture, provide assistance to farms, regulate pollutants, review new drugs to ensure their efficacy and safety, and manage over 200 million acres of National Forests and Wilderness Areas.

They preserve and operate our National Parks. The US has a spectacular array of National Parks, making available to the American people some of the most beautiful sites in the country.

They ensure we can travel safely by air, rail and highways. They forecast the weather and help us understand when dangerous storms can put us at risk, manage fisheries, explore outer space, and conduct groundbreaking medical and scientific research.

They respond to natural and man-made disasters, protect our borders, promote legitimate commerce and protect American businesses and consumer from counterfeit goods and currency.

They run the Social Security program, Medicare, Medicaid, and Veterans programs, along with many more that are too numerous to list in one blog post.

I don’t think we take time to say thank you often enough. Maybe that is because federal workers serve as a proxy for the arguments over the size of government. Maybe it is because our society and public discourse have become so polarized. The truth is that most of what people criticize about government is not the fault of individual federal workers. More often than not, it is caused by policies devised by the political leadership. Career employees are there to carry out those policies. Whether we think our Federal government is too big, too small or just right, we can respect federal workers for what they do for us every day and say thank you.

So this Thanksgiving week – thank you federal employees. Thank you for you loyalty, your dedication, your hard work, and the difference you make in America. I appreciate it – and you – very much.

Applicant Questionnaires and Gaming the System

Only 36 percent of employees who responded to the 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey said promotions in their work unit are based on merit. There are many reasons for the lack of employee and hiring manager confidence in promotion programs. Concerns about “preselection” and favoritism are high on the employee list. Those reasons assume that managers and HR folks are deliberately gaming the system to get to favored applicants.

Maybe those reasons drive some of the problems with merit promotion and competitive hiring programs, but they are not the only problems. In fact, I believe they are not the biggest problem. That honor goes to the assessment process most agencies use for their job announcements. Anyone who has applied for a job in recent years has come across an applicant questionnaire. Let’s just call it an AQ for short.

The AQ is exactly what it sounds like – a lot of questions that purport to distinguish the best candidates from the rest of the pack. In theory, they are a great idea. Simple questions that tell a manager who is among the best qualified (and who is not), without putting a large burden on applicants, should make the hiring process work better. Except when they don’t.

Before we get too far into the AQ, let’s get in the wayback machine and go back in time, to the era before we had the AQ. Then we had KSAs. Remember those? KSAs are knowledge, skills and abilities, and job applicants had to write lengthy narratives describing how their education, training and experience matched the KSAs for the job. Virtually no one liked KSA narratives. They were time-consuming to write, miserable to read, and many folks believed they encouraged applicants to lie embellish their qualifications. The AQ was intended to eliminate those problems and improve the hiring process for HR, applicants and hiring managers. It is safe to say that it did not work out quite like it was expected.

What happened? Why did what seemed like a great idea not make the kind of difference everyone expected? I believe there are three reasons.

  • Hiring managers are not involved in the process as much as they should be. A good AQ requires input from someone who has in-depth understanding of the job being filled. That means an experienced supervisor or subject-matter expert (SME). Too often they are done by HR alone. Even the best HR specialists are not SMEs. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) recognized the problem when it created its hiring excellence program, which is intended to bring HR and hiring managers together to fill jobs. Unless agencies expand their use of SMEs, the problem with poor quality AQs will not go away.
  • People lie. This one should not be a surprise. The people who lied when they wrote KSA narratives are still lying. The difference is that it is easier and faster now. No need to write 500 words to inflate your experience – just check the box and go on to the next question. Sadly, the number of people who lie on job applications seems to be going up. When we started using the AQ (about 25 years ago), lying in response to the questions did not appear to be a big problem. Now it is.
  • Many of the AQs are just terrible. Even if we solved the problems with lying and lack of SME involvement in the process, the AQs we see for many jobs have to be better. There are two big problems with them. The first is that they take a basic format – five answers ranging from “I don’t know anything” to “I am an expert” and use them for every question. The second is that there are far too many questions. Here is an example of the first problem (from a current job announcement):
Research, collect data, and provide advice and recommendations on research techniques to determine the most efficient and cost effective means of accomplishment.
  1. I have not had education, training, or experience in performing this task.
  2. I have had education or training in how to perform this task, but have not yet performed it on the job.
  3. I have performed this task on the job. My work on this task was monitored closely by a supervisor or senior employee to ensure compliance with proper procedures.
  4. I have performed this task as a regular part of a job. I have performed it independently and normally without review by a supervisor or senior employee.
  5. I am considered an expert in performing this task. I have supervised performance of this task or am normally the person who is consulted by other workers to assist or train them in doing this task because of my expertise.

Finding an example of this type of AQ took 30 seconds. They are everywhere. From the perspective of simplicity, they seem great. Come up with a job requirement, then drop in these responses. The first three answers mean you have never done the work, or you have only done it with close supervision. You have to get to answer #4 to find someone who actually has decent experience. Even #4 does not mean you did it well. It did not take long for a people to figure out that selecting answer 5 would get the most points. It is also hard to prove an applicant who selects answer #5 lied about it. “Considered an expert” is vague, as is “supervised performance.” Almost anyone can say they are “consulted by other workers.” The fact that the hiring and promotion processes are not highly regarded adds to the problem, making it easier for people who would never consider themselves to be liars to pick answer #5, even if they are not objectively what anyone would call an expert. People have told me that they pick the top answer because “It is a way to get to the interview process.” With this type of pattern, we should not be surprised when hiring managers complain that they get lists of people who cannot do the job.

The second part of the problem with AQs is the number of questions. It is common to see 20 or more questions per job. Many of those are junk questions that do not differentiate the great applicants from the average ones. If there are five questions that address the core requirements of the job, and 15 questions that are more general, such as “ability to communicate orally,” it is likely that people who have the necessary skills will not make the cut.

If we want to make the hiring process better, and we want to build employee trust in promotion programs, we have to stop misusing the AQ. They must be tailored to the job and they must have something other than the same five answers. They need to differentiate between good candidates and bad candidates in a way that the five standard responses cannot. And finally, we have to recognize that the AQ is only one part of the evaluation process. When OPM got rid of KSAs, they told agencies they could not use them in the initial screening process. They also said agencies could use multiple assessments. What happened was only the first part. We got rid of the KSAs, but we did not use additional assessments. We may not see comprehensive hiring reform any time soon, but we can and must improve the assessment process now.