Federal Agency Hiring – Steps to Better Candidate Assessment

Even before President Obama’s 2010 initiative to remove the obstacles in the federal government’s antiquated hiring process, agencies’ HR departments looked for ways to improve the assessment process to enhance both the applicant experience and the agencies’ chance of identifying top talent. With the OPM’s Hiring Reform in place, the intent is to create a process for job seekers that is more streamlined, easier to navigate and much faster.

Now, agencies can further help themselves and position themselves for talent acquisition success by focusing on processes and systems that can truly help them compete in the cutthroat hunt for top quality talent that exists today.

The Assessment Process in Federal Talent Acquisition

Candidate assessment in the federal work space typically involves HR developing occupational questionnaires based off position descriptions and job analysis. These questionnaires are intended to measure candidates’ knowledge of and competence in job relevant skills. Candidates are scored based upon self-ratings provided during the initial online application process. Those candidates with the highest self-assessment scores are sometimes invited to complete additional assessments, while most commonly this is the only assessment process prior to the interview.

How a particular agency goes about this assessment is defined by the agency. Specific processes and workflows need to be established considering the type of position, difficulty to fill and resources available to create and conduct the assessments. For example, a high-level mission critical position may not need a costly, in-depth assessment process.

Even with Hiring Reform – Problems Remain

While Hiring Reform set out to make the agencies’ and candidates’ lives easier, the reality is not quite so wonderful. Several problems remain with the talent assessment discipline in the federal space, including:

  • Unnecessarily high burdens on candidates due to the length of questionnaires. This often discourages the very people that the government is trying to attract.
  • Low predictive validity, as candidates are often smarter than they score on assessment tests or not as qualified as a score may indicate. This leads to promising candidates getting buried in the middle of the pack, while lesser-qualified candidates often rise to the top of the candidate list.
  • Significant time is required by HR personnel to review candidates properly and identify better candidates.
  • Assessment programs are commonly comprised of items with no distinguishing value (e.g. incredibly, answering a phone is a commonly used question in occupational questionnaires given how commonly it is a required skill across jobs. However, it has no value to distinguish among potential high or low performers given everyone regularly answers a phone).
  • Multi-hurdle highly predictive assessment processes take longer and cost considerably more to create and utilize.
  • Multi-hurdle processes are complex and often not supported by acquisition technology.

The Future of Federal Candidate Assessment

Even with all the seemingly ingrained challenges in assessment of candidates throughout agencies, the future is promising in light of new technology available today. As with any technology, the answer and way out of the problems cannot be solved with technology alone. It will take discipline, planning and renewed dedication to the higher goals. But with that attention, technology can be exploited to relieve much of the burdens on both the candidates and the HR departments.

Talent acquisition systems that encompass full assessment capabilities include capabilities such as:

  • Reporting tool that will analyze questions used in the past to best predict quality candidates, thereby allowing an agency to create smarter and shorter assessments, processed with only useful questions in the future.
  • Flexible questioning that reduces the obvious nature of the “correct/highest scored” responses.
  • Question libraries where items are labeled by the competency, position and skill level intended to measure, thereby ensuring items used will be of distinguishing value.
  • Ability to incorporate multiple assessment and interview hurdles to increase predictive validity.
  • Reporting tool that will identify the positions that have proven to yield a high volume of candidates requiring substantial evaluation processes.
  • Open interface allowing interconnections to external assessment systems.

Providing these capabilities to HR users also lowers the likelihood that inappropriate questions are used, while allowing them the flexibility to determine items directly related to their specific vacancy. It further enhances the process by allowing HR to implement workflows that result in first-level assessments, automatically triggering a secondary assessment based on the outcome of making the initial cut, whether internally or via an external assessment.

While many agencies remain bogged down in the burden of traditional candidate assessment, others are moving ahead, into a new era that is not only automated, but with the flexibility and openness to adapt to the realities demanded by today’s candidates and available from today’s external systems.

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