A recent first person account on Gawker accurately outlined the structural problems within the Department of Veterans Affairs and how those issues led to veterans dying. This worker nailed one of the driving causes of government inefficiencies, overspending, waste, and fraud: poor hiring practices. Sadly, these destructive trends are common across all federal agencies.
Although there is no quick fix solution, one way to make a dent in this nonsense is to seriously reform the federal employee hiring process. Take a glimpse at USA Jobs for a look into this bizarre, Kafkaesque world.
How to make the system better?
Eliminate Veterans Preference
I'm going to get a lot of grief for this one, but far too many qualified civilians, specifically at the Department of Defense, are being shut out of government jobs. I understand that giving veterans extra application points for time served helps provide jobs to an already-struggling community. However the veterans preference gives a candidate priority for the wrong skill: time in the military instead of relevant professional qualifications. Non-veterans who are qualified get bumped to the bottom of the pile a majority of the time.
To be sure, many of the skills learned in the military can be transferred to a civilian job. If that's the case, then the relevant skills can be considered just like a civilian candidates. But the preference is skewing the system.
Given that this is a very popular law, I highly doubt any Member of Congress would ever support eliminating veterans preference, but it has to be said.
Implement 30 Day Limit on Hiring Process Start to Finish
About ten years ago, I read that the average time for hiring a federal employee is 90 days. However, when I entered the federal job search, I was getting rejection notices six months after I applied. In one instance, I got an automated rejection notice 13 months later.
The private sector can take just as long too, but nowhere near a year to hire someone. A direct consequence of this lagging process is that ideal candidates (or at least those who managed to make it through the cumbersome application) will be grabbed by the private sector before the public sector can get its act together. The whole process just rewards those who can hang around longest, not exactly an exceptional skill.
The only thing that should take several months is the background check.
Stop With the Fake Job Postings and Interviews
A huge chunk of people who have tried to get a government job can tell you about the fake job postings. The posting period only runs about two weeks (in comparison to regular ads that run up to three months), and the description itself doesn't say anything. The posting will also require professional experience only an internal candidate would have. The fake interviews consist of a disinterested interviewer, nodding and sighing, redundant questions, and a Blackberry/computer constantly checked by the interviewer.
A standard human resources requirement is to interview externally even though you have an internal candidate all ready to go. Rather than treat external candidates seriously, interviewers set up interviews that last anywhere between five and 15 minutes. (A friend of mine set the record with a two minutes, 43 second interview.) The short time is spent asking questions that the KSAs or resume already answered.
This suggestion is tricky because no matter what, there will always be an inclination to hire internally. Any alternative, aside from banning internal hires altogether, will only be met with more bureaucratic gymnastics to get around the system.
Get Rid of the Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (KSA) Requirements Altogether
KSAs are long essay questions where an applicant must tie his previous education and/or experience to specific job duties. I've seen job applications that had nearly a dozen of these questions, including same questions that are phrased a bit differently. For some postings, the time it takes to complete the application is longer than a university final exam.
President Obama did help reduce the KSA requirement, but it's still kicking. Check out an "ideal" sample that human resources is supposed to be reading to determine whether or not to interview a candidate.
Aside from the tortuous length of this answer, these questions are common in the average hiring process except they're usually done face to face in this thing called an interview. The KSAs are a lazier way of letting a computer do the work of initial elimination and encouraging most applicants to give up before they hit the "submit" button.
A federal employee hiring consultant told me that a computer program scans KSAs for answers that contain keywords in the original question and/or job description. All an applicant has to do is play human resources Mad Libs to get past the initial screening — a weak indication of substantive competence and strong indication of how to game a system.
But no worries if you find this process cumbersome. There are several federal employee hiring consultants aching to take your money to help you navigate bureaucratic nomenclature, fooling a computer system, and endure the 90 day+ waiting game.
Looking at the federal employee hiring process in its current form, it's no wonder that the system rewards: doing the bare minimum, hanging on like a barnacle for decades, and fooling the system to be self-serving instead of substantive accomplishments. We're not going to get anywhere on the VA issue, or any other issue, until we seriously rethink and revamp how federal employees are hired and under what circumstances.
If we've done what we've always done, we'll get what we've always got.