Obama Tells Agencies: Speed Up The Hiring Process

The country's largest single employer — the federal government — is overhauling its hiring process. The move follows years of warnings that the best candidates for federal jobs were being put off by a system notorious for red tape. President Obama has ordered agencies to update a process that is literally a holdover from the 19th century.

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The country's largest single employer, Uncle Sam, is overhauling its hiring process. The move follows years of warnings that the best candidates for federal jobs were being put off by a system notorious for red tape. Yesterday, President Obama ordered agencies to update a system that is literally a holdover from the 19th century.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Ian Smith has applied for numerous federal jobs in the past decade - the most recent, last year.

Mr. IAN SMITH: It was a 20 or 25-step process. And one positive thing I will say is that you could save it and come back later. So that was helpful because it did take three or four hours.

LUDDEN: Former Naval officer and global studies Professor Doug Padgett(ph) has been applying for jobs at Defense, Homeland Security and other agencies. After all that effort, he says, you enter a black hole.

Professor DOUG PADGETT (Global Studies): Most of the time, you never hear anything. I mean, six months down the road you might get a letter saying you didn't get the job, and I've had that happen - I'm, like, I don't even remember applying for the job at that point.

LUDDEN: This is no joy for federal agencies, either. Managers say by the time they identify the perfect person for the job, he or she is likely to have been snatched up by the private sector.

John Palguta of the Partnership for Public Service says the Byzantine nature of the system stems in part from the so-called rule of three: a cumbersome ranking process adopted more than a century ago.

Mr. JOHN PALGUTA (Vice president, Partnership for Public Service): It was, you know, around 1880. But it was premised on the notion that, well, you know, we'll be able to determine who the best people are. We want to hire the best, so we'll have managers pick from among the top three.

LUDDEN: In fact, until recently, the law said you could not hire whoever ranked four. Palguta says that may have worked for 19th century clerical jobs when a test could clearly show who had the best skills, but it's impossible to apply to the complex jobs of today.

Mr. JOHN BERRY (Director, Office of Personnel Management): We have great workers in government now, in spite of the hiring process - not because of it.

LUDDEN: John Berry heads the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. He announced the overhaul to a room full of grateful public servants.

Mr. BERRY: For the first time in history, you will be able to apply for almost every federal job with a simple resume and a cover letter. We are eliminating knowledge skills and ability essays as an initial recruitment requirement of the federal government.

(Soundbite of applause)

LUDDEN: That would be the dreaded KSA, a series of many essays. Government agencies will also be required to keep applicants informed of their progress. Federal hiring has been on the rise in recent years, and many more people will be needed as the baby boomers retire. So it will become all the more important not to alienate people like Doug Padgett, who says he's come up with a coping mechanism.

Prof. PADGETT: I take breaks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PADGETT: I take breaks, where I don't do quite as many applications.

LUDDEN: Padgett may want to try again in November. That's when federal agencies are supposed to have the new system in place.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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