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Ten Problems With How the Government Hires Employees

The Cincinnati Veterans’ Affairs Medical Center recently hosted a Town Hall meeting. During that meeting multiple individuals expressed concerns with the VA’s hiring process. Those concerns ranged from a lack of accountability and transparency to a downright distrust of the system and those that oversee it.

These concerns aren’t unique to Cincinnati or the VA; in fact, virtually all federal agencies have well-deserved reputations for being very time-consuming, not responsive, frustrating, difficult to navigate, inefficient, and wasteful.  Many of us can correctly sense when something is broke.  But few of us really understand what happens inside these organizations after we click submit.

This article identifies ten problems with governmental hiring processes.  These problems are based on my observations as an employee at multiple different governmental facilities and as a volunteer at the Employment Justice Center in Washington, DC.

#1: No Needs Assessment

Many times the hiring managers neither understand what the true need of the organization is nor what they are looking for in an applicant. As a result, the KSAs (Knowledge, Skills, Ability) are either poorly worded or very vague, and the position requirements are not well defined. Or just the opposite happens and they are too narrowly focused on “nice to have” experience. And consistent with the government’s reputation of not doing anything at a fast rate (i.e., it generally takes over 4 months to fill a vacancy, which is more than double the time it takes a company in the private sector) oftentimes the VA’s needs will change over time, making the initial position description irrelevant.

#2: “Open to All” Advertisement is a Ruse

Similar to other agencies, the VA has the tendency of creating job vacancies, particularly at the middle-management level (GS-12 thru GS-15), that are advertised for all applicants when, in reality, the job was created with an internal applicant in mind. These vacancies are relatively easy to spot because they place qualifiers on many of the KSAs to ensure that they are so narrowly focused that the only way that someone could have gained that experience was in the agency that created the vacancy.

#3: Stove-Piped Job Classifications

Most agencies hire in response to job vacancies within stove-piped job classifications. Agencies such as the VA rarely perform detailed workforce planning and assessment of what skills they will need to hire. How human resources professionals are trained to evaluate and score applications further exacerbates this problem: they “put blinders on” and only consider experience that is aligned with the position description, which was usually written several years ago.

If a person were to apply for a financial manager position, for example, then the VA initially wouldn’t consider experience outside of that area of expertise to enhance that individual’s skill set and ability to add value to the organization. That is one of the many reasons why government is considered easy prey (i.e., a cash cow) for consultants and contractors who are integrated thinkers. It is also why government has a tremendous over-reliance on them. The paradox is that the types of people who are employed by the companies that consult on the government, usually at very high hourly rates, wouldn’t be found qualified for the majority of governmental positions due to their varied experience.

#4: Veterans’ Status

I have seen veterans’ status work both ways. On one hand, the popular perception of veterans “points” is that veterans are routinely given preference over more qualified candidates because of their military service. That is because a veteran receives five extra points and a disabled veteran receives ten extra points. Although this may be technically true, it rarely has any impact. There are generally several different certification lists available for the selecting official to use as a basis for making a decision.

On the other hand, I have seen veterans’ preference work against veterans, particularly if they apply to mid-level (GS-12 thru GS-15) positions. Veterans who leverage veterans’ preference are sometimes perceived as having an entitlement mindset. How veterans’ status is perceived depends on the agency. Agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Defense, Social Security Administration, Equal Opportunity Commission, and Department of Labor tend to look favorably on veterans’ preference.

#5: Overemphasis On “Knowledge” vs. Ability to Learn

The governmental hiring process presumes that experience results in significant knowledge acquisition. Experience is the largest factor in the online “self-scoring” assessment. Your score is generally determined by how you answer questions that score responses such as “I have routinely performed this task without supervision” higher than “I have performed this task and my work was checked by my supervisor” and the latter higher than “I have had training in this task but not yet performed it on the job.” The evaluator then looks at your resume to ensure that you have work experience that justifies your responses.

Nowhere in the process are factors such as quality of undergraduate or graduate degree or GMAT score or LSAT score or Analytical Writing Score or performance on some sort of objective test considered. A degree from “Chico State” is given the same consideration as a degree from a top-tier school. A person who has “20-30 years of experience” in non-performing bureaucracies as a technical writer but scores in the bottom half of test takers on a standardized analytical writing test is significantly more competitive than someone who scores in the top 10 percent on an objective assessment but has less work experience. What’s more, the job descriptions may be written in a way that requires knowledge of specific rules, regulations, and standard operating procedures as opposed to an ability to learn them.

#6: Unfamiliarity With Private Sector Realities

Many of the governmental hiring managers don’t understand private sector experience. Unlike the private sector, where people change jobs and even careers many times over, sometimes the hiring manager has only worked for one or two federal agencies. And more often than not that person hasn’t worked in the private sector. They might not understand how extremely competitive it is to get hired into McKinsey, Bain, BCG, Google, GE, P&G, Goldman Sachs or another Fortune 500 company. Or that GE fires the bottom 10% of their workforce every year (and that the bottom 10 percent of that work force might be equivalent to the top 10 percent of the agencies Senior Executive Service leadership pool).

As a consequence, they may not appropriately consider this experience and fail to hire a superstar who would bring a wealth of knowledge and best practices to the agency. Instead, they tend to look favorably on the applicant who has held a job similar to the one they are applying for either inside the agency or with a different federal agency. They feel that they know what they are getting with this applicant.

#7: Limited Appeal Rights

And what happens when after you go through all of this work, answering KSAs and filling out applications online and you don’t get hired? You have very limited appeal rights, if any. That is right, not to discourage you from applying, but you may have just spent several hours preparing an application for a not-so-difficult GS-14 position that a LTC created for himself to walk into after he retired or a position that was created for an internal applicant or a position that was created for a contractor of a company that so and so owns or so and so worked for a few years ago.

The best thing that you can do is to call back the number, which may connect you to an automated system, hope that you can speak with a representative from HR and ask a few questions. If you feel that you were discriminated against, then you can attempt to file a charge with the agency’s EEO office, but unless you are an employee, you are probably not eligible for mediation, and it is very, very difficult to succeed on those types of claims.

#8: Security Clearance Required

Some positions significantly over-estimate both the sensitivity of the material that you will use and the level of access that you will need to perform your duties. So they require you to obtain a security clearance, a step that is usually unnecessary. Plus a process that is very bureaucratic and slow.

You most likely will have to fill out a bunch of forms, allow an Office of Personnel Management investigator to visit your residences, speak to your neighbors, talk to your professors, and do whatever they feel they need to do to meet the needs of the agency that requested the investigation. Or they may just do a records check to ensure that you don’t have any felonies or misdemeanors and have a decent credit score. Or they may bring you in and give you a lie detector test. It all depends on what the needs of the position and agency are.

The process can be very quick, but more likely than not, it will add 4-6 months onto an already slow process. Oftentimes, they spend thousands of dollars to find out information that you can find out online for $19.99 by visiting a site like Address.com or LinkedIn.

#9: Over-Reliance on Contractors and Consultants

For many of the reasons stated above, the government is too dependent on contractors and consultants. Moreover, the high level of specialization (which is characteristic of most governmental bureaucracies) and the lack of rotational assignments in most agencies creates silos and produces bureaucratic managers who are functional experts but lack the diversified experience necessary to take a strategic or global view of the organization.

Instead of keeping strategic planning in house, agencies routinely outsource strategic planning, a process that should be used by managers to develop internal employees, to align resources, and to enhance the collective strategic understanding of the organization, to consultants (many of whom have a financial interest in the outcome of the planning). The irony is that many of these talented consultants would not be found qualified for many governmental positions (i.e., #3 above).

#10: Lack of Integration

Even if someone is successful in navigating through the hiring process, once hired, an applicant from the outside is oftentimes given little help in integrating to their new work environment. The majority of the time, the person will enter into a position only after his or her predecessor has left.

As a consequence, the employee has little time to “learn the ropes” of the position. This also explains why hiring managers tend to focus on hiring employees whose experience suggests that they can hit the ground running. The process makes it difficult for many very qualified applicants to bring in their new ideas, skills, and expertise from the outside. That, in turn, further increases the dependency that agencies such as the VA have on contractors and consultants to perform work that is not “inherently governmental.”

Featured image from Shutterstock

Ryan Peckyno

Ryan graduated from West Point (BS) and Penn State, Main Campus (MBA). He worked for P&G, Lockheed Martin, the United States Army, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Motley Fool, Pinnacle Consulting, and various nonprofits.

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Categories: Government Transparency, Labor / Unions, Must Read, Opinion
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