Applying online is great, but those forms'yechh!

Walter R. Houser

The USAjobs site, at, is the most important project the Office of Personnel Management has launched to help close the yawning employment gap in the information technology work force of the federal government. But more must be done to simplify the job application process if departments are to compete more effectively in the IT labor market.

I love being able to apply online. If online application submission is not available for a particular position, I at least want an e-mail address to send applications to.

I also love being able to check for jobs throughout the government anytime I want to without paying to subscribe to weekly hard-copy jobs publications.

Over and over again

But I am less pleased that more and more agencies have their own online job application processes. Having to repeatedly enter my life history is maddening. I am concerned that the proliferation of electronic job histories may compromise what little privacy I have left.

Because of USAjobs' volume and scope, I maintain my resume there. If OPM has my data, why does every other federal agency need to collect it, too?

The proliferation of online job application forms is also frustrating. Each agency seems to have its own spin on the SF-171 form, each offering chances to make mistakes. At some agencies' sites, changes require re-entering the entire document, field by field.

There happen to be standards to enable interagency exchange of electronic job applications. The Internet Engineering Task Force published the Internet Open Trading Protocol and the Electronic Commerce Modeling Language in December. They establish a format for data exchange using Extensible Markup Language in e-mail messages.

OPM could adapt this standard for a prototype implementation on USAjobs. When someone submits a job application, USAjobs would place it a database from which OPM could forward it to agencies via an e-mail containing the applicant's data in a structured XML document.

Applicants could use a single XML document to apply to any agency adopting the OPM format.

I chuckle when senior federal managers talk about recruiting on the open market. First there's the daunting SF-171 itself. Second, the knowledge, skills and abilities essays are an immense hiring barrier. Tech folks I know laugh at this paperwork exercise. Their attitude is 'If those bureaucrats can't figure out from my resume that I have what they want, they are either interested in someone else or are too dense to read a resume.'

Literary torture

Some agency essay requirements are laughable. One asked for 'complete and concise responses' to five pages of questions. The only people willing to reply to such a ludicrous literary torture would be an incumbent desperate to keep his or her job.

Another personal peeve of mine is the short fuse opening, posts that appear on USAjobs one or two days before they are due. Worse, the announcements sometimes require application to be in hand'not postmarked'by the closing date. There are no provisions for fax or e-mail submissions. Maybe the Postal Service will get the package delivered in time, maybe not.

When I call to express my views, temperate as they are, the answer is the agency has no control over when OPM posts the announcement. I was told that requirement for receipt at the office, rather than postmarked-by, varies from job to job.

If I were a cynic, I might say it depended on whether the hiring official had already made his selection. If he or she already had someone in mind for the position, they don't want to waste time waiting for laggard wannabes from the outside world.

Perhaps I should be grateful for these ridiculous application requirements. Even Bill Gates wouldn't get hired for those positions that are so clearly wired.

Nevertheless, OPM should include the date the announcement is posted on the Web site. The JavaScript to do that is trivial. The date received at OPM should also appear, so nitpickers like me can pick on the true culprit, be it the agency or OPM. Adding these two dates would replace finger pointing with accountability.

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His personal Web home page is at

Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.