Federal hiring is a notoriously long process, and federal hiring managers pin part of the blame on USAJOBS: The website is just not good at screening out truly qualified applicants from the less-qualified ones, and so Human Resources offices get flooded with too many applications from candidates who are not right for the jobs, they say. However, a pair of pilot programs may offer a way out of the logjam–one that cuts USAJOBS out of the equation and makes the federal hiring process very much like a private-sector one.

Stephanie Grosser, a “bureaucracy hacker” with the U.S. Digital Service, oversaw the two pilot programs, one of which filled GS-13 IT specialist positions at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), while the other filled similar positions at the National Park Service. While each ran for six months total, they completed the candidate-selection process within a brisk 11-day timespan at HHS and in 17 days at the Park Service. This, as opposed to the average of 47 days that it takes hiring managers to select candidates under the current process.

How did Grosser and her team achieve these quick turnarounds? They credit two system changes:

  1. They had candidates send short two-page resumes, like those that job seekers typically send to private-sector employers; instead of the customary federal resumes, which can run from five to as many as 60 pages long.
  2. They ditched the USAJOBS questionnaires–the ones where you’re supposed to rate your level of expertise at various job functions, using a scale of 1 to 5 (1 for “no experience” and 5 for “expert”). Instead, they brought each of the most promising applicants in for two initial “pass-fail” interviews in which they used specially tailored questions and (sometimes) skills tests to suss out how much expertise the applicant really had. The hiring managers rated the finalists after these interviews, and then the agency decided which ones it would hire.

Under the current system, USAJOBS scans job applications and compiles lists of potentially “qualified” applicants for hiring managers to interview. Those who make the cut do so based partly on their resumes (well, really, the presence of certain keywords in their resumes) and partly on their answers to the questionnaires.

Have you done one of these questionnaires and rated yourself “expert” on every skill it asked you about, even if you really weren’t? Most applicants do. They have to, or else they don’t even get an interview.

Clearly, not everyone who claims to be an expert actually is. The result is that hiring managers get long lists of “qualified” candidates who not qualified at all–they just knew to click the “expert” response for every answer.

And the hiring managers spend so much time interviewing applicants who don’t have the necessary skills that they sometimes give up on ever finding the few who really do: Up to 50% of job vacancies that agencies post to USAJOBS never get filled at all, according to Grosser. Competitive job postings are the source of only 20% of federal hires nowadays, as many agencies are increasingly looking for candidates via direct hire authority and other “noncompetitive” means, she said.

“People who lie get through as ‘qualified’, and those who are humble and honest often don’t,” Grosser said at an October event with the National Academy of Public Administration. “And then the hiring manager sees so many qualified candidates that they end up saying, ‘I won’t make any selections because all I see are these people who aren’t qualified.’ ”

Grosser’s pilot programs, by contrast, eliminated any backlogs early on by cutting resume-review time (hiring managers could read two-page resumes fairly quickly) and filtering out most less-than-qualified candidates in the interviews. The hiring managers were able to start the selection process with shorter lists of candidates, and those candidates were overall better matches for the given jobs, according to Grosser: “The quality was so much higher,” she said.

In the end, HHS was able to whittle down an initial pool of 165 candidates to 36 that seemed legitimately “qualified.” From this group of semifinalists, it hired seven. And the Park Service took an initial stack of 224 applications, whittled it down to an 11% that it determined were “qualified,” and then, from this group, made 13 selections.

Grosser and colleagues now plan to take the pilot programs on a “road show” that will present them and their outcomes to hiring authorities at 24 other federal agencies. The Digital Service and OPM are also considering redoing the pilot, and this time giving participating agencies the option to keep candidates they consider “qualified” on their hiring managers’ certification lists for up to a year for consideration for other jobs.

“We’ve been really heartened with the two pilots that we’ve run,” Matt Cutts, Digital Service administrator, told reporters. “We’re looking at, as far as what’s next, how we can scale that up and talk about working with other agencies and also just making them aware that they are able to do this process themselves now.”

Slow hiring is a problem for many more positions at many more government agencies. But Grosser, Cutts, and others hope that better screening–like that which HHS and the Park Service instituted in these two pilot projects–could be the beginning of an effective government-wide solution.

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Rick Docksai is a Department of Defense writer-editor who covers defense, public policy, and science and technology news. He earned a Master's Degree in Journalism from the University of Maryland in 2007.