IT staffing problems start with application form

Walter R. Houser

The upcoming presidential election has professional pundits and civil servants alike speculating about what is in store for the coming four years. It seems safe to say that either candidate, if elected, will want agencies to keep pursuing online government.

But will the federal bureaucracy be able to deliver?

One of the hot topics is the so-called graying of the federal information technology work force'indeed, the graying of the managerial work force as a whole. What's going to happen when the aging, once-idealistic baby boomers retire and agencies must fill the resulting vacancies?

Unless the government changes its ways and there is significant civil service reform, the process will be long, slow and only partially successful.

When private-sector headhunters will market your resume for free, why should talented outsiders slog through the arduous process of federal recruitment? A two-page resume will snag you a private-sector job, or at the least an interview, a lot faster than scores or hundreds of pages of the so-called Knowledges, Skills and Abilities essays demanded of those who want to work for the government.

What kind of IT professional does the federal government want to recruit anyhow? Masochistic essay writers who have plenty of spare time on their hands? Patient saints called to public service? Job hunters willing to refuse lucrative private-sector offers in the hopes that slow moving bureaucracies will somehow grind their way to a favorable conclusion?

Not all bad

Don't get me wrong. There is much to be said for a civil service career. The benefits are excellent, the retirement program is good, and employment is relatively secure. The working conditions are reasonably good and employment practices are usually family-friendly. Once you put in your 40 hours at the desk'plus your 10 to 15 hour commute'the rest of your life is your own. Although many federal managers work far more hours than required, the demands to work 60 to 80 hours to ship the product are relatively rare.

On the other hand, there are no stock options, the pay is below market rate, and the work rules can be stultifying. Worse, in too many agencies, courage, innovation and creativity get the same reward as steady, lackluster performance. When it comes to new ideas and projects, everyone, it seems, can veto a change, but no one can make it happen.

The federal recruitment process is a telling introduction to this professional lifestyle. Job announcements themselves are demonstrations of bureaucratic rhetoric.

Job aspirants must, as part of the application process, write from four to a dozen short essays. All of this paperwork then drops into a black hole for digestion by personnel specialists programmed to select qualified applicants based on a set of keywords they often do not understand.

The skill essays should be scrapped. Or at least impose them only on the final round of candidates.

Why clog the system with all that paper, when only a handful of job applicants and their paperwork will receive serious consideration? If a two-page resume can't address the basic qualifications for the job, it's foolish to expect 20 pages of narrative to do any better.

The Office of Personnel Management and other agencies and departments should make it easier for professional recruiters to participate in the process by agreeing to pay headhunters' fees in certain cases. I don't know if federal personnel rules forbid applicants from paying fees to recruiters. Even were such payments allowed, those thousands of dollars would be a substantial obstacle for a federal job seeker.

Private firms are quite willing to pay commissions to be sure that they get a pool of qualified candidates that are likely to be a good fit to the job. Recruitment firms help private-sector IT executives by sorting through hundreds of resumes looking for that needle in the haystack.

OPM and the agencies also need to do more than tweak the IT job series. The whole recruitment process is hopelessly archaic. If it doesn't improve quickly, there will be no one left to turn out the lights.

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


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