OPM Policy Changes May Improve Hiring, But Only if Agencies Do Not Find Ways to Maintain the Status Quo

Last week, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued new guidance to agencies with the intent of improving hiring practices. The document, Improving Federal Hiring through the Use of Effective Assessment Strategies to Advance Mission Outcomes, lays out improvements to hiring practices that can be implemented without changes to the law or regulations. I believe OPM has made a good start, but there is still more that should be done.

We all know federal hiring practices are miserable. They are slow, confusing to nongovernment applicants, tied up in countless regulations, unnecessarily complicated by Veteran Preference, and often result in lists of barely qualified applicants that are not suitable for the job. The result is that hiring managers struggle to hire the right talent, applicants get frustrated, and federal workers have little trust in the system they have to use to get a promotion. Virtually no one thinks it works.

OPM is attempting to improve the process by making some changes that would increase subject-matter expert involvement prior to issuing job announcements and in making qualifications determinations, decrease reliance of applicant self-assessment and increase use of effective assessment tools, and tighten qualifications determinations and referral processes so unqualified and poorly qualified candidates do not show up on referral lists.

“A common myth about assessments is that determining minimum qualifications and rating and ranking applicants can only be done by Human Resources (HR) staff. In fact, OPM guidance indicates that it is entirely appropriate — and encouraged — to use Subject Matter Experts (SME) outside of HR, with diverse backgrounds and relevant experiences, to work with HR to perform determinations of whether applicants are qualified.”

Office of Personnel Management Guidance

The idea of having SMEs involved in the process is not new. In fact, it was the way the government ran its hiring processes for decades. At some point, the combination of hiring manager disinterest and HR Office focus on speed resulted in hiring managers and SMEs dropping out of the process. It has gotten so bad that some HR Specialists claim it is inappropriate to have SMEs involved after a job announcement has been issued. As OPM clearly states, that belief is just plain wrong. Why would anyone say that the people who know the work cannot participate in evaluating candidates, and only HR Specialists who know little, if anything, about the jobs have to do it. Even worse is the practice of many HR Specialists to rely entirely on applicant self-assessment questionnaires in USAStaffing and similar systems.

The result of the existing process is that, in many agencies, applicants are asked to assess their own qualifications. Are you qualified? Yes. Are you really well-qualified? Yes. Congratulations! You are on the list. Then the hiring manager wonders why someone who cannot spell IT shows up on a list for an IT Specialist job.

OPM’s new guidance includes two key directives that may make a difference. First, it says agencies must “Reduce agency overreliance on self-rated occupational questionnaires by expanding assessment strategies and utilizing other effective assessment methods like structured interviews, knowledge tests, situational judgment tests, USA Hire Assessments, or writing samples.” That is a good start. The self-rating process started out as a way of supplementing the work of HR professionals. It has degenerated into a process that substitutes for HR amateurs. At this point, most of those questionnaires are virtually useless and do nothing to differentiate highly qualified candidates from blowhards who say they can do anything.

The second directive requires agencies to “Involve SMEs who possess expert knowledge about the competencies and proficiency levels that are essential in successfully performing the job. Agencies should involve SMEs not only in conducting job analyses, but also in reviewing resumes and conducting structured interviews to screen out applicants not possessing the required qualifications. The italicized part is critical. If agencies actually take the time to do this, they can eliminate unqualified applicants, ensure those who show up on a list as “highly qualified” are in fact highly qualified, and greatly reduce the number of unused referral lists. That is the single greatest improvement in the process agencies can make absent structural changes in the governing law and regulations. OPM based their guidance in part on a pilot conducted in collaboration with the United States Digital Service (USDS). USDS involved SMEs in both the qualifications determinations and in ranking applicants. They also capped applications at the first 100 (OPM rules allow that, as long as every application received on the day that the 100th application comes in is considered). The result? Far fewer applications on referral lists, with much higher selection rates. USDS proved that agencies that are willing to invest the time can get dramatically better results without asking Congress to change the law.

Will agencies actually do it? I have had HR Specialists tell me only HR can evaluate applications and that it is unethical to have SMEs look at applications. Hiring managers and HR folks tell me they don’t have time to do that type of review and reliance on USAStaffing and similar systems is the only option they have. They are wrong.

Vast amounts of time are wasted by advertising jobs repeatedly in hopes of stumbling across a good applicant. Talking to great applicants about the reasons they cannot get on a certificate takes time. Dealing with a bad selection that resulted from a bad hiring process takes time. All of these time sucks do nothing to make the process work. If agencies want to improve their hiring processes. I believe they have to implement these changes as soon as possible.

OPM also identified a number of steps they will take to help improve the process. OPM says they will:

  1. Issue guidance on the effective use of the Subject Matter Expert Qualification Assessment (SME-QA) process for technical positions.
  2. When regulations have been promulgated and the mandate to use category rating has been eliminated, the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act can be implemented to provide greater flexibility in determining which qualified individuals are available for selection (based on numeric scores) rather than being restricted to the top 3 qualified candidates.
  3. Issue the Guide to Better Occupational Questionnaires to provide agencies additional information about methods for developing highly-effective occupational questionnaires for candidate self-assessment.
  4. Implement the Federal Supervisor Assessment (FSA) through USA Hire in FY20. The FSA is designed for Federal supervisory positions and measures seven competencies critical to supervisory success: Accountability, Customer Service, Decisiveness, Flexibility, Interpersonal Skills, Problem Solving, and Resilience.
  5. Update OPM’s staffing “mythbusters” document to incorporate new myths related to promising practices in assessment.
  6. Update the Assessment Decision Tool to provide hiring managers, HR Specialists, and I/O Psychologists with assessment options for identifying needed competencies and to develop assessment strategies for their specific hiring situations (e.g., volume of applicants, level of available resources).

That list should include one more change. OPM should explicitly ban the use of self-assessment questions for determining whether applicants meet basic qualifications requirements. OPM’s guidance says “At present, most agencies use the occupational questionnaire to screen applicants for minimum qualifications. Screening minimum qualifications using an occupational questionnaire is fine, but a “deeper dive” needs to be taken in order to address the actual competencies needed to perform the work successfully.” I disagree — screening minimum qualifications using an occupational questionnaire is not fine. It results in far too many unqualified applicants moving on to the next step of the process.

Take a look at some of the job announcements that are currently on USAJobs. Many agencies are determining qualifications via a single question that asks applicants if they are qualified. Some do not follow that up with a review by anyone, and most virtually never have it reviewed by an SME. OPM should take the next step and ban that type of qualifications process. Agencies should determine qualifications by having an SME read the résumés.

The good news is that agencies that want to do that can do it today. Taking that extra step would greatly reduce the number of bad referral lists, discourage unqualified people from applying for jobs that they clearly are not qualified to do, and increase the likelihood that strong candidates will make it through the process.


Reskilling and Upskilling Offer Opportunities and Challenges for Agencies and Employees

We have heard a lot recently about Reskilling, Upskilling, and other terms that generally mean retraining workers to function in a changing workplace. The CIO Council deployed a Federal Cybersecurity Reskilling Academy pilot that proved successful enough to refine and continue. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued a suite of tools under the umbrella of “Accelerating the Gears of Transformation.” OPM’s tools include an Executive Playbook for Workforce Reshaping, a Reskilling Toolkit for HR and managers, and Guidance for Change Management in the Federal Workforce. Most recently, the Partnership for Public Service released a report, Looking Inward for Talent, that advocates for greater use of Reskilling as a means of delivering the talent the government needs.


OPM’s 2018 Federal Workforce Priorities Report highlighted the potential disruption of the workforce due to increased automation. They reported that 60 percent of jobs could have 30 percent of more of their activities automated. Although such changes are not going to happen immediately, they point to an increasing problem for the federal workforce and the workers everywhere. More and more jobs will be automated, skill requirements will change, and the pool of available talent may not have all of the skills needed to perform the work. The global scope of the issue means agencies will be joining the private sector in a search for talent that simply may not be there. Competitive pay, benefits and working conditions will not guarantee that the government or any private sector employer will be able to hire the people they need.

At the same time, workers are staying on the job longer. Many people do not want to stop working as soon as they are eligible to retire. Whether it is because they need the money, enjoy the challenge, or just want to get out of the house, we are seeing retirement ages creeping up and seeing older people returning to the workforce. The problem is that many of the existing or returning workers have skills that do not entirely match what agencies and private sector employers need.

There is much that agencies can and should do to cope with changes that Artificial Intelligence (AI) and greater automation will bring. I plan to address those in the third part of a series that began with my post Artificial Intelligence is More than a Tool, It May be Your Replacement, and continued with my post From Human Resources to Helpful Robot – How AI May Transform HR. If that were all agencies had to contend with, it would still be a major challenge. The problem is that it is not all they are facing.

That aging workforce that is staying around for more years is still aging, and eventually they will go away. The government is not hiring young people, and the competition for both skilled and unskilled workers is fierce in many job markets. Highly skilled occupations are in high demand in most areas where there are large concentrations of federal workers. Some, such as medical professionals, are in high demand everywhere. When we think of Reskilling in government, the focus is typically on skills such as Cybersecurity. I believe agencies are going to find that it is far more than those specialized jobs that they will have to worry about.

Hiring and training entry level employees is something virtually every employer does. It is a standard practice that is the way many federal workers get started. What may need to happen now is the establishment of more avenues for entering those jobs. The CIO Council’s Cybersecurity Reskilling Academy is a good example of taking people who are not in an occupation and providing them with a subset of skills that can help agencies meet specific requirements. The graduates of that program did not become instant cybersecurity experts, but they did develop useful skills. Other programs could take skilled workers and provide even more specialized skills.

Another alternative that we do not see often is establishment of sub-entry level positions. For example, most two-grade interval jobs have a GS-5 or GS-7 entry level. Agencies looking to fill those jobs typically look for people with a bachelor’s or master’s degree. At the same time, there are people in other positions who could be retrained to do the work, but who do not have the desired degree. There are also veterans who come out of the military without skills that are directly marketable. For example, someone who enlists in the Army, goes into the Infantry, and leaves after one enlistment, will have a lot of characteristics that should be desirable to employers. But — they are not likely to have the degree or the directly applicable experience that employers are seeking for entry level jobs. The result is that young veterans tend to have high unemployment rates.

Why not create positions below the entry level that would enable bright people without the required qualifications to be hired, trained, and prepared for those entry level positions? Such programs could also be used to totally reskill current employees whose skills no longer match agency needs. The government has done that before with upward mobility programs.

There are a few issues that are likely to get in the way. Managers usually want fully skilled employees. That is even more true if they have had staff reductions and need every skilled person they can get. HR offices are not always the most flexible parts of an organization, and they tend to want to do what they have always done. That means filling jobs at the entry level, full performance level, or somewhere in between. The idea of hiring someone at the GS-4 level for a job that has always been a GS-5/7/9/11/12 does not sit well with them. The HR system itself is not designed for much flexibility, although agencies have many options that they do not use. Employees also present some problems. Employees in GS-11 jobs that are going away are often not willing to accept a GS-5 position that would get them back to their current grade level in a few years, even with grade or pay retention.

To make Reskilling and Upskilling work, agencies and their employees, managers and HR staff will have to be willing to change how they do business. The demand for talent and the aging workforce will make that a necessity.