The federal government is notorious for its lengthy and often confusing hiring process, with the average time to hire taking over 100 days, according to March 2018 congressional testimony.

And while an overhaul of the entire federal hiring and job classification process seems unlikely, particularly in the current climate of disagreement between the White House and Congress on how best to address employee issues, the Office of Personnel Management and U.S. Digital Service want agencies to use the resources already available to them to ensure that agencies get high-quality candidates for their most challenging positions to fill.

The USDS Competitive Hiring Pilot, conducted with the Departments of Health and Human Services and Interior, relied on subject matter experts chosen from within the agencies themselves to evaluate the competencies of applicants for positions such as IT specialists.

“Not everyone realizes that nearly 50 percent of publicly posted GS-12 technical positions — so these might be software engineers or system administrators, or they could be chemical engineers, just technical experts — nearly 50 percent of those postings result in no selections,” said USDS Administrator Matt Cutts in an Oct. 23 call with reporters.

Typically, applicants for federal positions are asked to self-certify that they fulfill the listed requirements for a position, meaning that HR specialists can get deep into the selection process before realizing that none of the remaining candidates are actually suited for the position they are looking to fill.

Under the pilot, HR specialists and SMEs worked together to develop a plan for how to evaluate the necessary competencies for a particular position, then those SMEs conduct two rounds of structured interviews with applicants to determine which among them has the necessary skills.

Once applicants have been approved by two different SMEs, the HR specialist takes over to adjudicate the typical requirements for competitive positions, such as veterans preference.

“What I like about this is that it fits into the existing mechanisms; agencies can already do this,” said Cutts.

The process is best suited for jobs for which agencies have several positions to fill, so that the work done by the HR specialists and SMEs has widespread value.

“Fewer people overall were classified as qualified, but more actual candidates were selected,” a USDS official said on background.

At HHS, 165 people applied for the IT positions tested in the pilot, 36 passed both interviews with the SMEs, and seven were selected.

“Pretty much everybody who’s been exposed to that pilot, who knows about the pool of applicants that have been screened through it, is ready to say, ‘Wait, how do I get myself one of these?’” a senior administration official said on background.

SMEs chosen to help with the program go through a three-hour training process on merit system principles and federal hiring regulations to make sure that they comply with such principles in their screenings, and they work closely with HR specialists at their agency.

The pilot focused first on IT positions that needed filling, enabling USDS to lend its technology-specific expertise to the project, but OPM has released guidance to help agencies institute their own versions of the program for a variety of job types.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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