, , ,

Will We Ever Be Able to Promote in the Federal Government?

Other bloggers have written some excellent articles on ways to improve government hiring practices including
Donna Dyer’s excellent blogs. I see an issue regarding promoting people within the federal government and offer a suggestion for improvement from the state of California.

Where’s the Promotion?

On several occasions, my supervisor lamented the lack of easy, transparent mechanisms to promote good performers. Specifically, we had two excellent hires from college internship programs. Their performance was excellent and every year he promoted them up their designated career ladder from GS-9 to their maximum at GS-11s.

However, most of our developers are level GS-13 or higher. These individuals performed as well (or better than) their peers but were stuck several levels below.

My boss wanted to keep growing their skill sets and increase their compensation to keep them in our office. He did not want them to have to leave in order to advance their careers. He did not like how the selection process with HR was a black box where it was hard to guarantee who would be selected. He did not like the idea of making it less fair to people on the outside, but the system forces managers to do odd things with position descriptions to help their candidates get selected. Descriptions get so specific, they nearly list the desired height and hair color.

Coming from the private industry, the entire government process annoyed him as unnecessary and unfair. “Why can’t I just promote them?” he asked.

In federal service, it is not uncommon for talented staff to jump to new positions every 2-4 years. This is encouraged in many cases because you learn new missions and job skills at each stop. So, the easiest way to get a promotion is to find another job, typically at another agency.

Developing the next generation of leadership in your organization becomes more difficult. I have seen situations where managers were hesitant to send staff to training because they “didn’t want to help them get their next job”.

Problems Retaining the Best

If employees want to stay but are undercompensated, typically they have three choices. They become content without climbing higher, request a desk audit, or apply for a position specifically tweaked to favor them. Let’s look at each in turn.

Not climbing higher is not a good option. Having a GS-11 performing the same job as a GS-13 without the ability to adequately reward the 11 is unfair. Bonuses can help, but higher GS levels are the “gift that keep on giving”. Leadership programs (like the SES CDP) require a minimum GS level. Keeping someone below their performance hurts their long term career growth.

The desk audit option is not very effective either. Colleagues in HR tell me that the audits are rarely successful. In fact, a desk audit can lower someone’s level! The process is somewhat subjective. If the auditor is not very familiar with the job, this can skew results. For example, the difference in skill between a scripter and someone building code from scratch is significant, but it all looks like coding to the casual observer.

The last option is most common, but also the most potentially unfair. Since all jobs must be competitively listed, they publish a very specifically worded position on USAJOBS, then close it very quickly. Most USAJOBS positions rely on self assessments, so the fear is that some person will exaggerate their qualifications and bump the preferred candidate out. Although pre-selection is not allowed, listing jobs for short periods lowers the pool of people who are aware of the position. This is basically defeats the intention of open competition.

I understand the intention of the system is to balance open hiring practices against favoritism. If supervisors could simply promote anyone, then cronyism would run rampant and skilled outsiders would be left out.

Good Example from the Golden State

I think the state of California has a good process for balancing promotion and favoritism. The state requires that candidates pass an exam to qualify for positions. This helps ensure that “minimally qualified” candidates are capable of performing the job well.

Thus, if a manager would like to promote a good employee to a more senior position, they can if the person passes the exam. Anyone can take the exam. Based on scores, generally the first three ranks are eligible for hire. If the intended candidate does not pass, then the manager can hire one of the others. The intended person can try again six months later if another position is available. If the manager wants to keep the position open for the intended employee, they can. However, they risk losing the position.

No system is perfect. In the past, the CA test consisted of technical and skill based questions to ensure a level of competency. Over the years, more self-assessment questions were added. This does increase the potential for exaggerating. However, simply having a test in place helps ensure that promoted employees have the appropriate skills to do the job.

I know that federal laws and other considerations make this scenario difficult. I’m sure there are other great ideas from other state and local government as well as other parts of the federal government. The more ideas we share, the better!

Chaeny Emanavin is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply