Federal job seekers often get a bad impression

Walt Houser

The General Accounting Office has determined that the federal work force has become a significant risk factor.

In a January report, Performance and Accountability Series and High Risk Update, GAO 'designated strategic human capital management a high-risk area that urgently needs greater attention to ensure maximum government performance and accountability.' (See
While reducing the federal work force 12 percent, the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations have replaced inexpensive clerks with expensive technicians. Statistics gathered by the Office of Personnel Management show nearly a 63 percent drop in grades 1 through 4 since 1986 (see

More remarkably, the stats reveal a 40 percent increase in employment in grades GS 13 through 15. The annual payroll, unadjusted for inflation, partly reflects this. It rose from $60 billion in 1986 to nearly $87 billion in 1999.

The recent pay hikes for grades 1 through 12 are valuable in making federal service more attractive. But salary alone won't do it.

Many see federal employment as stable with good benefits. The highly rule-oriented personnel system provides employees with considerable independence. The technological challenges and potential for responsibility can be enormous.

But the low turnover means that the work force can become, as one saying goes, 'pale, male and stale.' Also, although some offices have an excellent reputation for training employees, most have cut training dollars to preserve salaries and jobs.

Nevertheless, former dot-com workers are looking for jobs in federal information technology. So why is the reception they get often less than warm?

For many prospective employees, the recruitment process itself sets the tone and reputation of government employment. Unfortunately, the impression is often a sour one.

The focus of recruitment appears to be on the process itself, not the applicant. All the information must be delivered up front, making the process convenient for government but burdensome for the applicant.

In contrast, private-sector employers typically review a short resume, asking for more information during interviews if the applicant is of interest. This lowers the application threshold, expands the range of candidates and limits the paperwork.

Perhaps the greatest hurdle is the series of essays on applicants that is known as knowledges, skills and abilities'the dreaded KSA. For the most part, the essays are redundant to a well-written resume. The KSA statement encourages overamplification and padding.

Agencies should ask for the essays only from finalists, if at all.

In many respects, government has taken a step backwards with the rescission of the SF-171 application form. Most agencies ask for the same information but in a bewildering array of variations. I continue with the SF-171 because I believe agencies are comfortable with it, even though they may prefer their own format.

I suspect a preference for agency-specific forms disguises a preference for in-house candidates. Other clues: one-week deadlines, announcements posted only in the basement, delivery instead of postmark by a due date and KSAs overly tailored to a specific office.
How can the government attract more applicants?

First, cut out KSAs for all initial applications. Stop signaling that only the verbose need apply.

Second, accept resumes via e-mail in many formats. Give applicants the chance to save postage by using the documents they already have prepared.

Walter Houser is the webmaster for a large federal department.


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