Are inter-disciplinary employees welcome in gov’t?

One of the hallmarks of the new generation of public servants is that they aren’t easily explained.

They aren’t one track, one sector, one agency, or one job series. They aren’t one desk, one computer, one stapler, one Skillcraft notepad. They often bring a wealth of diverse experience, multiple advanced degrees in different disciplines, and a rich blend of for-profit, non-profit, and volunteer experience.

Increasingly, we might find a civil engineer who also works as an editor for a non-fiction publishing house. Or a civil rights lawyer who is an award-winning web designer. Or perhaps a food safety inspector who has a doctorate in urban planning.

So how do human resources professionals, especially in staffing and classification functions, make fair and accurate comparisions among job candidates when the resumes are assessed and given numerical scores? Can someone explain to me how such resumes are scored and compared to folks with more traditional one agency, one job series, here’s-my-latest-SF-50 backgrounds? Are they systematically disadvantaged given their diversity of experience?

As public servants, do we see the value in hiring inter-disciplinary people?

Andy Lowenthal is a public sector strategy consultant. Follow him on Twitter.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Corey McCarren

This is a very important question to be asking. I’m prone to say that there is definitely value there, but I guess that’s also slightly self-serving. I’d really love to get the input of HR managers here.

Dannielle Blumenthal

That is a good question as I work at the crossroads of internal communication, organizational development, process reengineering/collaboration/knowledge management, and sort-of-social media. Best description: organizational glue.

Pam Broviak

I have often wondered about this too – particularly because in civil engineering we were always pushed to concentrate on one specialty area even inside the profession. It seemed if you were proficient in more than one specific area, people didn’t believe it was possible or they thought that you must not be very good in any of them. So if people can’t imagine an engineer experienced in both transportation and water treatment – both civil engineering fields, they’ll never accept a civil engineer who is also a writer or IT person. This is one reason I try to limit the skills I put on my resume.

But in the end, if everyone put all their skills on the table, you would think an employer could have a better chance picking the right candidate.

Mark Sullivan

I believe part of the problemis that we use “positions” as an organizing principle rather than “work.” Not only does this contstrain us in terms of our hiring practices, but also restricts us from being more efficient and effective in redeploying people, and thinking creatively about partnering and distributing work across organizations, jurisdictions, and sectors. Imagine what we could accomplish if, rather than ‘filling positions’ we had pools of skilled and talented people inside and outside of our organizational walls (like Deloitte’s Fed Cloud), who we could call upon as needed to meet both short and long term needs. That’s certainly a place I’d love to work!

Steven Ollek

I feel the problem also lies with the structured OPM job classification process – with the current position descriptions, General Schedule grades, etc. There is no flexibility and when hiring officials set off to make a hiring action, it is often difficult to find the ‘one’ person who meets the PD perfectly. More flexibility in the job classification system should exist in government, but I feel this is a long-term goal not something short-term that immediate returns could be fostered.

Janice Hawkins

The value in inter-disciplinary staff is determined by administrators who may not be savvy to the changing tasks in their area. For example I was a supervisor who completed my MSW in Administration which included spread sheets and statistical data. This meant translating practice into quantifiable terms and spreadsheet demonstrations. However while local office managers required it. Central Office felt that their own QA staff was enough. So my title never caught up with my function. So this remains a concern for incoming staff

Henry Brown

Has always been an Issue in the Technology arena….

Depending on the agency, I found that if HR was willing to work with you they would give you a list of several applicants(with thier automated score) and the IT manager had the final word on who would be selected for the posistion

Jay Johnson

Is it that we’re stuck in the industrial era thinking of finding an interchangable ‘cog’ to replace so the ‘machine’ can keep running rather than finding talented people to provide more value to the people who depend on them?

Mark Sullivan

Perhaps, in addition to the staffing and classification function, we lack a certain competency at the mid-manager level. When a supervisor promotes into a mid manager role, they not only need to be a good manager of people, but they also nee to be able to: (1) anticipate the future ; and (2) think cross-functionally . In the same way that we often promote great line-staff into supervisor roles despite a lack of aptitude for the ‘people stuff’, I think we often promote great supervisors into higher-level management roles without the natural talent to think beyond production of the widget in front of them. As a consequence, we reinforce the habit of replacing cogs rather than innovating and building capacity.

Spanky Frost

One thing that the federal govt mainly ruins is the position classification itself. The mentality (at least outside the beltway within DoD) is that you, as an employee are not the position and title… you are simply an employee holding that position and title. If you look at the private sector positions, it is the opposite. Of course no one will work in a position forever, but perhaps the system is designed that way because of turn-over. I see that as a downfall for the fed positions.

Brian Dowling

This is going to make a more significant and complex difference at the periphery of government and the community or civil society with the ever increasing presence of a User Generated State: Public Services 2.0. (From Down Under but still relevant here in the USA) Especially with a number of these government multiple disciplinary types likely on the streets due to budget cuts. If citizens start figuring out how to organize, collaborate and take advantage through means such as crowdsourcing the tremendous amount of knowledge and experience out there and institutional government entities remained silo’d within the specialized fields of expertise and separated from the public by their professionalism then there may be some rude shocks in the future.

Andy Lowenthal

Thanks for sharing your insights, everyone.

Janice – thanks for your personal anecdote. We’ve always known tension to be an issue between field locations and central office, and if we had more cross-pollination between the two groups then perhaps each would realize the importance of evolving skill sets (i.e. data analysis, as you mention) a lot sooner.

Andy K. raised a great point about Deloitte’s FedCloud concept — a provocative report that I’d recommend to everyone on this thread. It emphasizes agility over rigidity and outcomes over process. In its current form, a typical gov’t HR office is not well-suited to handle a massive hiring surge or a reduction in force (for political reasons), and a matrixed workforce like you might find at a big consulting firm obviates the need for either one. I also love the parallel that Deloitte drew between the federal workforce and the ease and popularity of cloud computing… very clever, indeed.