Fixing the federal hiring process: Deus ex machina

Commentary by Jeff Neal
Founder of
& Senior Vice President, ICF International

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog,, and was republished here with permission from the author.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Neal

This is the first of an occasional series on the federal hiring process. I will address some of the problems, how they developed and what we can do to make it better. There are many aspects of the civil service and federal employment that are subject to robust debate. That the hiring process still needs significant reform is not one of them. I haven’t talked with one person in the past couple of years who believes the process works well. Filling jobs take too long, the federal workforce believes the process for selecting people is rigged, and many potential job-seekers give up on federal employment because the process is so daunting.

Let’s start with technology and how it has been used and abused to make the hiring process worse. I titled this post Deus ex Machina because I think it fits the situation we have now. Deus ex Machina is a Latin term that literally means “God from the machine.” It is commonly used in the theater to describe an artificial or improbable device to resolve the difficulties of a plot. Both the literal and theatrical definitions fit the situation with technology and hiring.

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Years ago, the hiring process relied almost entirely on a lengthy application called an SF-171. Applicants attached an even longer narrative addressing Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSAs) that were listed in the vacancy announcement. A Staffing Specialist or rating panel would review the documents, assign scores and rank the candidates. Virtually no one liked the process. It was slow, required applicants to spends many hours writing KSA responses, and consumed too much time in HR and rating panels. On top of that, the “crediting plans” agencies used to rate the applications were confidential. Applicants could not see them because the belief was that they would falsify their applications if they knew what we were looking for. In effect, applicants were forced to respond to a questionnaire where they were told the subject of the questions, but not the questions themselves.Many of us believed there were better solutions. In 1991, at the Defense Electronics Supply Center in Dayton, Ohio, we looked at the problem and decided the solution was to open up the questions and let applicants see them. Rather than using KSAs, we would use a questionnaire that asked people to respond to specific questions. The process was not automated, so staffing specialists or panels would review the questionnaires and a simplified application we had developed. They determined whether the applicants’ responses to the questions were supported by the experience they described. The process was much faster, far more open and resulted in a hiring process that was viewed more positively. In the next few years, other agencies independently came to the same conclusion. The process also lent itself to automation in a big way. As more agencies used questionnaires, OPM and the private sector added questionnaires to their tools that facilitated job announcements and receipt of applications. It became less burdensome for someone to apply for a federal job. The story should have ended at that point with “And they all lived happily ever after.” It did not.

It turns out the KSAs were only a small part of the problem with the hiring process. The systems agencies were using were not interfaced and there was no way to easily use the application for one agency in another agency’s system. Even worse, if one agency advertised a position and received 500 applicants, it could not share those applications with other agencies that were recruiting for the same type of job in the same area. I will address that and other aspects of hiring reform in greater detail in future posts, today’s focus is technology. As one of the early advocates of using these systems, I had high hopes for what they could do. I assumed they would be used as decision support tools. I thought applicants would be honest in how they respond to questionnaires. And I thought HR offices would always ensure the quality of applicants they refer remains high. I was wrong.

I have been surprised by the number of people who tell me how easy it is to game the questionnaires.”It’s easy to figure out which response gets the most points!” Well, of course it is. It isn’t a test — it is a description of experience. The process relies on the integrity of the applicants. It also relies on HR specialists conducting a thorough job analysis to ensure the questions are valid. While some of the hiring systems provide support for job analysis, the cut and paste feature is used too frequently. Most critically, it relies on HR specialists or a subject matter expert (SME) to review the resumes and provide some quality control. If an applicant says he or she has experience weaving baskets, yet nothing in the resume says anything about it, they are supposed to not get credit for it. If the applicant says he or she has a year of qualifying experience at the required grade level and the resume does not support it, they are not supposed to get credit for it. That is Staffing 101 and the hiring tools provide the capability to do that kind of quality review. What surprises me most is the people in HR who have told me it is improper to do that kind of review. In one agency where I worked, I was told it was a violation of merit system principles to have SMEs review the resumes before issuing a certificate. That idea is rubbish and it leads to hiring managers having to do their own screening of applicants to try to weed out the people who are obviously not qualified. It is probably not very comforting for applicants, but hiring managers generally do not like the process any more than they do. Nor do many HR specialists.

We got here in part by gutting HR offices in the 1990s. As part of the National Performance Review, a decision was made that HR and contracting shops were “control” organizations that needed to be downsized. That downsizing would be made possible by dramatically eliminating or rewriting rules that made so many HR and contracting jobs necessary. In HR, the Federal Personnel Manual was eliminated and more authority was delegated to agencies, but the underlying civil service laws and regulations were relatively untouched. HR and contracting shops were downsized by as much as 50 percent. Many HR offices were unable to hire new staff for several years. At the same time, technology was coming along that promised to make the hiring process better, faster and cheaper. It was a “perfect storm” that came together to harm, rather than help, the hiring process. Agencies became over- reliant on the technology because they had little choice. As the hiring restrictions eased, new staff were brought in who learned to work in ways that reinforced the idea that technology can replace judgment.

So, we have gotten to the point where some agency HR folks think anything that comes out of the machine has to be sent to the hiring manager. Hence the “God from the machine.” We have taken tools that are designed to support a process and eliminate sorting through mounds of paper, and used them, at least in some agencies, to replace judgment with checkboxes. That is bad for the applicants, bad for the hiring managers, bad for the agencies and bad for the taxpayers. As we consider ways to reform the hiring process, we need to start by clarifying the roles of HR specialists and the roles of the systems that are designed to support them. We also need to make certain HR offices have enough well-trained staffing experts to do the work. Maybe then we can get some real reform.


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Copyright 2014 by Jeff Neal. All rights reserved.

Jeff Neal is founder of the blog,, and a senior vice president for ICF International, where he leads the Organizational Research, Learning and Performance practice. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.