I read with interest David Santiago’s opinion piece titled ‘A people-first approach to recruitment, retention at federal agencies’ [Federal Times, Dec. 7] and would like to add a voice for what I have found broken within the recruitment efforts of my agency, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development.
These comments are my own, based on personal experience seeking promotional opportunities and also from helping federal employees with career advancement in my former union official role.
As Mr. Santiago states “overall employee satisfaction” fell “five points year-over-year in 2022″ and that to “address dissatisfaction among federal employees and ameliorate recruitment concerns, many agencies have begun taking steps to directly address this issue.” He then goes on to suggest speeding up recruitment and improving the onboarding experience. My agency has done both of those things and it hasn’t been enough.
Since 2007 I have watched dozens of HUD employees apply for promotional job opportunities. Jobs were announced on USAJobs and one applies in a straightforward process. Federal employees provide a resume, a SF-50 to prove time-in-grade, and the most recent performance appraisal. Sometimes the timing for the performance appraisal is tricky but there is a way to notate that no appraisal was provided or that the one provided was for the prior year. I haven’t found many problems with how USAJobs accepts the documentation and transmits it to the agency.
To focus on things my agency did well I would note that HUD received several awards for speeding up the hiring process since moving to a contract with the Bureau of Fiscal Services, a shared service provider. Going to BFS around 2012 sped up the hiring process from 136 days to 98 days. But it is my opinion that it has done nothing to improve the caliber of new hires and it has actually had a detrimental effect on workforce satisfaction when it comes to promotional opportunities.
Around 2012 extraordinarily capable and talented GS-9 to GS-12 career employees started applying for promotional opportunities on USAJobs. They started receiving emails acknowledging receipt of their applications. Then some emails started showing up saying that their application was referred to the selecting official and some employees received invitations to interview, but most, if not all, actually received an email from email@example.com saying “we regret to inform you that you were not referred” or “you were not selected for the position.” Turns out most selectees were chosen from the external hire list (USAJobs Delegated Examining Unit (DEU) Vacancy Announcement).
This scenario has played out year after year with internal staff being passed over for promotion opportunities for less experienced external hires. Five years in is when I began to see career employees leave in droves for opportunities with other agencies or other divisions. Those left behind were told to train the newbie.
Some supervisors have confided to me that they prefer to hire external candidates because if they promote an internal candidate then the resulting lower-level vacancy does not get filled for years. They begrudgingly hire a green person and pass over their ‘ready-and-able’ staff. That leads the teams’ job satisfaction taking a nose dive.
Here’s what I believe may be a root cause of the problem with HUDs hiring process --- it doesn’t follow Merit System Principles 5 USC § 2301(1) which says that “Recruitment should be from qualified individuals from appropriate sources in an endeavor to achieve a work force from all segments of society, and selection and advancement should be determined solely on the basis of relative ability, knowledge and skills, after fair and open competition which assures that all receive equal opportunity.”
HUD diluted the ‘qualified individual’ process when it outsourced the process to BFS. HUD, by ignorance or design, diluted compliance with Merit System Principles, the HUD Merit Staffing Policy (Handbook 335.1) and requirements under 5 CFR § 335.103 for Agency promotion programs. The BFS process is just about ‘taking in’ the paperwork, shuffling it through a set of checklists and ‘taking out’ a list of applicants that met the checklists.
In the engineering world we call this ‘garbage in’ – ' garbage out’.
For example, the requirement for ensuring candidates meet competencies and KSAs (Knowledge, Skills and Abilities) was taken out of the hiring process and replaced with an Assessment Questionnaire that asks, for example, if the applicant has one year time in service at the requisite GS level.
It also provides some multiple-choice questions like “please select all of the answers that demonstrate your experience providing outreach at public forums with local partners and customers on a broad spectrum of housing community or economic development programs and other assigned events” and “which responses describe your experience persuading stakeholders through oral communication?.” Each answer is given a certain amount of points.
There is no place in the BFS process where a subject matter expert interrogates the answers and compares them to the resume to make sure KSAs and specialized experience is on point for the vacancy. BFS just sends HUD the Certificate of Eligibles with applicants who turned in the required documents and who’s self-assigned answers meet a certain point threshold. And there is no process where BFS connects the GS federal pay grade scale to an equivalent pay scale for non-federal hires.
Here’s a recent example of a hiring decision. A Project Manager making $55,000 applied for a GS-15 HUD Director position. Applicant checked the ‘yes’ box to having 1-year of experience at the GS-14 grade level. BFS took that ‘yes’ to mean the person had the time-in-grade requirement to qualify for the GS-15. BFS did not ask for salary information to check if the applicant was in the GS-14 salary range nor did BFS look at the 1-page resume to gut-check experience commensurate to a GS-14 level. Applicant was deemed qualified. BFS did not assess all 8 applicant resumes against KSAs per a crediting plan.
BFS just sent the 8 applications to the interview panel and noted them “qualified”. Interview panel questions did not correlate to KSAs and a selection was made solely on interview performance. In the end, the least experienced applicant was chosen for the GS-15 ($113,488 ) position, essentially doubling their salary and leap frogging over more qualified internal and external hires; and, to add insult to injury the manager assigned subordinate staff to train the new Director. That sunk job satisfaction and half the department retired.
I believe that the speed of filing a vacancy needs to be balanced with improving the quality of federal hiring decisions. Better vetted and qualified new hires, and more hiring of best qualified internal hires, will more likely than not improve employee satisfaction.
Elizabeth McDargh is a civil engineer and a senior environmental officer with HUD. She is the former president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, Local 1450. The comments expressed are her own.