Average Time to Fill: Possibly the Worst HR Measure Ever

imageMost of us in the HR world have worshipped at the altar of “time to fill” for many years. We use/d it as a proxy for everything we wanted to make better in HR, particularly the hiring process. The idea was that getting the average time to fill down to a good number (whatever that was arbitrarily determined to be) would mean we were doing a good job with hiring. It would make applicants more interested in applying for jobs in our agencies, send the message to HR staff and customers that HR was responsive, and generally raise the level of performance in HR. I have to admit I used it for years.

Looking at it as someone who is not in the HR trenches anymore, I have concluded that it started out as a good idea, but like many things good ideas in government, over time it has become a caricature of itself. Rather than driving real performance, it often provides an excuse for just the opposite.

Let’s look at the typical 80–day hiring model as an example. Is 80 days a good target for filling jobs? No. For most jobs it is far too slow. For some jobs it is far too fast. There may be a few jobs for which it makes sense. The fact that the target is the same for every job is a big part of the problem. The truth is that the time it takes to fill a job varies from one position to another. The use of average fill times is another part of the problem. If I fill three jobs in an average of 80 days, you do not know how long it really took. I could be that one took 160 days and two took 40 days. If you are the hiring manager or applicant involved in the 160 day case, you are probably unimpressed when I tout my 80–day average.

If we really want to improve the hiring process, we need to move away from one-size-fits-all metrics into measures that are tailored to the type of jobs we are filling. Tailored metrics can tell us how we are really doing – metrics like the 80–day measure tell us nothing. If the job is simple, is filled often, has an abundance of candidates, and does not require a security clearance, it should be filled within 30 days or less. If it is a Secret Service Agent who requires a TS-SCI clearance and has to go through an Academy training program (that is scheduled well in advance), it may be that 9 months is a reasonable time. If we are filling one job, it may take much less time than when we fill 100 jobs. If we are hiring newly graduated students, we might make an offer 6 months to a year in advance. Does the HR office fail when it makes an offer a year in advance and adds 365 days to its time-to-fill? Of course not.

Once we get rid of generic time-to-fill metrics, we can determine how well the hiring process meets targets that make sense. It is critical to remember though that time-to fill measures responsiveness, but it does not say anything about the quality of the hiring process. We could be hiring great candidates or bad ones. When we hire great candidates, we could be misrepresenting the job in the vacancy announcement and turning them off because what they applied and were selected for is not what they thought they were getting. Unless we add a quality measure to the mix, we have no clue whether we get good results or not. That means every agency needs a quality of hires metric as well. Such a metric can be determined by a post-hiring survey that goes to the hiring manager and the selectee a few months after the employee reports to the new job. The hiring manager can be asked how the process went and how the new employee is doing. The new employee is asked how the job matches up to the vacancy announcement and their satisfaction with it. Both can be asked about improvements to the process.

A combination of job-specific time-to-fill targets and post-hiring quality metrics is absolutely essential if we want to improve the hiring process. Absent that, we are left with meaningless targets that tell us nothing, enable nothing, and change nothing. Making this type of change does not require legislation, new regulations, or any other bureaucratic steps. It is simply good management and can be implemented now.

Are New Political Appointees Ready to Govern?

Political appointees come from all walks of life and all sorts of backgrounds. Some understand and have worked in government, while others know little or nothing about how Washington works (when it does). A new appointee has to learn how to work within his/her agency, how to work with the White House (the Office of Management and Budget in particular), other agencies, the Congress, and the public. Many come with the idea that they are there to change the world. The fact that they are appointed by the President leads many to conclude they have tremendous power to enact the President’s policies and priorities. Their sense of urgency is high, their goals are far-reaching, and their desire to do good is often off the scale.

Appointee, meet Reality – Reality, meet Appointee.
It doesn’t take long for reality to rudely intrude and bring even the most dedicated professionals down to earth. Simply being appointed by the President or a member of his Cabinet does not bring with it the power to successfully execute significant changes in government. The ability of other agencies, the Congress and coutless other stakeholders to put up roadblocks is maddening. And as if that isn’t enough, they run headlong into the federal budget, procurement and HR processes. Faced with those realities, is it any wonder the average tenure of a political appointee is 18-24 months? Every appointee knows that statistic and understands (1) they serve at the pleasure and (2) Presidents are elected for 4 years at a time. Appointees see the ticking clock and act as if they are running a sprint to the finish line. They will work obscene numbers of hours for the few years they are in government to make certain they can accomplish some good. That collides with a career workforce that cannot possibly work at that pace and work those hours for 20 to 30 years. Even with 31 years as a career employee, I found myself pushing my staff so hard that one seasoned and highly respected career SES told me I had successfully made the transition to being an appointee because I expected everything immediately. I had to admit he was right. My view of what was doable was influenced by the knowledge that my time was limited.

During 31 years as a career federal employee and 2 years as a political appointee, I found the process for onboarding appointees was generally inadequate to prepare them for the enormous responsibilities they are taking on. As an appointee, many of my colleagues were so frustrated with government and so disappointed by the difficulty in effecting real change that they were ready to leave government. They had the passion, drive and real-world skills, but were struggling to effect real change.

What can be done to make it more likely these motivated individuals will be successful? A number of studies in recent years have identified the problem and dozens of recommendations for fixes. One of the best studies was published by the Partnership for Public Service. Ready to Govern, published in January 2010, identified a number of actionable steps that can be taken to improve the quality of Presidential transitions. Many of the Ready to Govern recommendations can also be applied throughout the term of an Administration to ensure its appointees are effective. Ready to Govern and other studies consistently recommend training for all new appointees. To be most effective, the training must occur early in their appointment (or even before) and should address the budget, procurement, and HR processes, and the ethics restrictions covering appointees. The Obama Administration implemented a successful Presidential Appointee Leadership Program to provide training for new appointees. When I was in the Administration, I participated in the program and helped train over 1,000 appointees. The interest in government, enthusiasm for the public good, and superb quality of the appointees was tremendously inspiring. In addition to the White House program, in the past year the Partnership for Public Service has worked with a group of experienced former career SES and political appointees to develop a series of Ready to Govern courses for new appointees. I have been privileged to work with them and serve as faculty for several of the sessions. We have piloted the program and gotten tremendous feedback on its effectiveness and real world applicability. 

Programs such as these can equip appointees with the information they need to be successful in government. In addition, they need agency-specific training regarding mission, structure, budget and employee data (demographics, Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and Best Places to Work results). It is critical to understand what is happening internally – why the agency exists and how it gets its funding. Appointees also need to understand how the agency workforce views the place if they hope to work closely with the career workforce to get their priorities accomplished.

An effective government-wide training program that provides the broad government view, combined with agency-specific onboarding programs that provde a deeper understanding of their own agencies, can help ensure that political appointees are truly Ready to Govern.