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How HUD cut its hiring time in half

Aug. 15, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
HUD's top leaders, including Secretary Shaun Donovan, threw their clout behind the effort. to speed up the hiring process.
HUD's top leaders, including Secretary Shaun Donovan, threw their clout behind the effort. to speed up the hiring process. ()

Earlier this year, the Housing and Urban Development Department was the poster child of the government's dysfunctional hiring system.

A three-page diagram illustrating HUD's hiring process looked like a busy circuit board — Federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients showed it off at a conference in March as an example of bureaucracy gone awry.

The diagram showed a 40-step process, requirements for 19 signatures along the way, and a 139-day average time frame for hiring a new employee.

But today, HUD says it has cut its hiring time almost in half, to 76 days, which is about half the time most agencies take and comfortably below the 80-day goal OPM has set for all agencies.

For years, agencies have taken nearly five months on average to hire new employees — from the day a manager decides he needs to fill a slot to the new hire's first day on the job. But until recently, the government hasn't been able to make a dent in the problem.

In June, OPM Director John Berry directed agencies to set up so-called SWAT teams of hiring managers and human resources officials. They were told to map out their hiring processes and figure out where the logjams were.

HUD did that. Allison Hopkins, the department's acting human capital director, said in an interview that an even more important step came soon afterwards, when HUD's top leaders threw their clout behind the effort.

"Once the secretary [Shaun Donovan] and deputy secretary [Ron Sims] made it clear hiring reform was important to them and they expected results, that paved the way for us," Hopkins said. "We went into that SWAT team meeting [last summer] with the clear understanding that we needed a way to streamline, and it wasn't up for negotiation."

Fewer sign-offs

Hopkins said the SWAT team quickly zeroed in on the internal review process — in which a manager first seeks permission to hire a new employee — as one of the most problematic logjams.

"Some program offices had as few as nine steps, but some had 13 steps just for a hiring official to get approval to fill a vacancy," Hopkins said. "We reduced that to no more than three. We essentially cut out people's signatures."

HUD now requires only that a budget official confirm there is money to pay a new hire and that one or two organizational leaders agree a new employee is needed before the request moves forward.

Another problem at HUD was getting subject matter experts together to review job applicants' assessment scores. Previously, HUD would wait until it had a stack of applications before trying to schedule a panel of experts. But by that point it was typically too late — the experts' schedules were often booked solid and it took weeks to find a time to meet.

So this spring, HUD started scheduling the panels in advance, and Hopkins said that has helped avoid bottlenecks. HUD also tightened deadlines to get panels to review applicants quicker.

Other agencies have taken similar steps in recent years. The Homeland Security Department last year ordered human resources offices to tell managers weeks in advance that a list of candidates is on its way so they can block out time for interviews.

And in 2007, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission scrapped rating panels because of experts' scheduling problems, and began allowing each hiring manager to go through applications on his own to pick out the best candidates.

Other reforms at HUD

HUD has taken other steps to institute reforms the president has mandated by Nov. 1:

• HUD in July eliminated written knowledge, skills and abilities essays (KSAs) for initial applications. HUD now requires only résumés and cover letters from applicants. Berry and other critics of KSAs say they are too long, repetitive and discourage many job seekers from finishing their applications.

HUD now uses multiple-choice questionnaires that ask candidates to assess their own qualifications and skills.

"The range [of responses] could be anything from, ‘I've had training, but never actually done it on the job,' or ‘I've had education related to it,' to ‘I'm an expert and often perform without any supervision,' " Hopkins said.

A computer calculates the responses and sends the highest-scoring candidates to the expert panels. Those experts double-check self-assessments against applicants' résumés to make sure the candidates haven't oversold themselves, and to make sure veterans' preference points are properly applied.

The computer also flags the lowest-ranking scores to be double-checked by a human, to make sure good candidates aren't mistakenly being rejected.

• HUD uses category rating exclusively. Category rating lets managers consider a larger pool of candidates who meet or exceed minimum qualifications than the rule-of-three system. HUD stopped using the rule of three, where candidates are assigned numerical scores and only the top three-scoring candidates are put forward to managers.

• HUD is drafting new performance evaluation measures to judge how quickly and efficiently managers hire new employees. Hopkins hopes those will be ready by the end of October.

All agencies were told to deliver hiring reform action plans to OPM by Aug. 1. OPM would not release those plans to Federal Times.

Former intelligence community Chief Human Capital Officer Ron Sanders and former Energy Department CHCO Jeff Pon said in interviews that preliminary results at agencies like HUD and the administration's focus on hiring reform seem promising.

"Many people are asking the right questions now," Pon said. "This is the third or fourth time administrations have tried to improve the hiring process. But [now] the president of the United States, in an unprecedented way, has put his name on the memo. We haven't seen that before."

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