Henry Brown

More Commentary This one from the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) Sept 2009 Newsletter Page 2 & 3

KSAs: Throwing the Baby Out with the Bath Water?
Author: John Crum;Director, Policy and Evaluation

Agencies need to find a balance between getting enough information to adequately assess applicants and lessening applicant burden.

When I read that John Berry, the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), was proposing that agencies stop using Knowledge, Skill, and Ability narratives (KSAs) as part of the application process and rely more on applicant resumes, I thought there would be cheering in the streets. One of the biggest complaints we hear from applicants and selecting officials about the Federal hiring process is how long it takes. Oftentimes, the requirement to write (and evaluate) lengthy KSAs to describe the applicant’s experience in certain areas is a significant contributor to the length of the process.

However, I have recently seen a number of KSA advocates who claim that the narratives help the human resources (HR) staff and selecting officials identify which candidates have the best skills for the job. They argue that a resume alone does not provide adequate detail to determine an applicant’s qualifications, and the occupational questionnaires used by many agencies rely on an applicant’s self-reported information and is therefore not an effective screen. For this reason, the advocates argue that KSAs do have a place in the hiring process.

It is my opinion that both sides have valid points and propose that KSAs do have their rightful place in the hiring process—provided that they are used more effectively than in the past.

Typically, an agency will announce a position, identify the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for the job in the announcement, and ask applicants to write half a page to a page of narrative describing their experience in each of these areas. Often, agencies will have applicants write six or more separate narratives.

There are some fairly standard KSAs that applicants are asked to address, such as written communication, oral communication, or the ability to analyze complex situations and develop solutions. Few instructions are provided to the applicant on what should be included in the narratives other than to address their knowledge, skill, or ability in this area.

The narratives are generally evaluated by the HR staff or subject matter expert panel to determine the best qualified applicants, and the list of those applicants is sent to the selecting official for further assessment.

While it is important to evaluate the key KSAs necessary to the job, using the KSA format may have unintended consequences. Making applicants go through this labor-intensive process could discourage good applicants from applying because they can find other job opportunities that have a more streamlined process. Also, using this KSA format may artificially help applicants who are good writers (or who hire good writers to write their KSAs) or who are good at selfpromotion.

In addition, the agency must use valuable resources to evaluate each candidate’s narratives. Given the rise in applications that many agencies have seen recently, this workload increase could be untenable.

However, we should not completely discount the idea of KSAs. Instead, we should consider how they might be used more effectively. The first applicant assessment used in the hiring process does not need to evaluate every knowledge, skill, and ability necessary to do the job. The goal of the first assessment is to screen the applicants to a workable number of well-qualified candidates who can be further assessed through more rigorous tools, such as structured interviews and job simulations.

Therefore, instead of asking applicants to complete numerous generic KSAs, the idea should be to identify the one or two key competencies that will best differentiate which candidates should move on in the process. The KSAs not addressed in the initial screen can be evaluated through subsequent assessments, such as through a structured interview.

When asking applicants to address the one or two key competencies, agencies should provide specific instructions on the length of the narrative (no more than half a page) and what specific points to include. An accomplishment record would be a great format for this assessment.1 For instance, instruct applicants to select one past
accomplishment related to the KSA, describe the accomplishment in sufficient detail to understand its importance, identify the specific role the applicant played in achieving the accomplishment, and describe the impact of the accomplishment on the organization.

By using one or two short, well-designed narratives, we can overcome many of the problems associated with today’s KSAs. We can get the information we need to provide a preliminary assessment of applicant qualifications. We can also make better use of agency resources because fewer, shorter KSAs will have to be evaluated. Also, because applicants are given specific instructions on what to include in the narrative, the narratives should take less time to complete and be less burdensome. Using KSAs in this manner can help ensure that we are making the best possible decisions concerning who are the best candidates while reducing the burden placed on applicants and speeding up the hiring process.