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USDS, OPM Test New Ideas for Improving Hiring Outcomes

Here’s an idea: When it comes to evaluating candidates for a job, why not get insights from subject matter experts who have firsthand knowledge of the required competencies?

That is the idea behind an ongoing initiative by the Office of Personnel Management and the U.S. Digital Service (USDS). In late 2018, USDS was invited to do a “discovery sprint” at OPM to improve outcomes in competitive hiring. USDS recommended two things: that self-assessment questionnaires be replaced with SME-based qualifications assessments (SME-QA) for measuring competency and that SMEs help HR with resume review by only looking at the first two or three pages of each resume to equalize the playing field for private sector applicants.

USDS got permission to move ahead with a handful of pilots to test the outcomes. To learn more about this initiative, GovLoop submitted questions to USDS, which solicited input from various stakeholders. Here’s what they had to say.

The responses were lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

GOVLOOP: What were the basic goals of the program?

Competitive hiring is based on merit so we wanted to make sure qualified applicants could make it through and non-qualified applicants would not. By replacing the self-assessment questionnaire and federal style resumes with SME-evaluated resumes and pass/fail assessments, we hoped to ensure a fair opportunity for all applicants.

On top of that, we wanted to try to encourage a more efficient hiring process. Instead of opening announcements for one hire at a time, have 40 applicants qualify and only one selected, why not have truly effective assessments where fewer qualify but then everyone who qualifies can be given an offer somewhere in the federal government? That was our vision.

What are the key tenets of the initiative?

  • Empower SMEs to make qualification determinations on technical competencies. HR specialists review the justifications from SMEs to make sure the decisions are retraceable and that the SMEs have documented the specific competencies that the applicant doesn’t meet. HR specialists defer to the SMEs judgment for these decisions.
  • Create accurate job announcements on USAJOBS that represent the position and are not copied directly from the position description.
  • Replace the self-reported, and often over-inflated, occupational questionnaire with a skills-based SME resume review and assessments in accordance with a June 2020 Executive Order.
  • Limit the number of pages of work experience that would be reviewed on resumes to level the playing field for private sector applicants and reduce burden on SMEs conducting reviews.
  • Applicants who pass SME resume review earn entry to the assessment. These assessments, rather than resume review, determine whether the applicant is qualified. After assessments are completed, all veterans’ preference and category rating rules apply. Preference is adjudicated after applicants pass all hurdles (resume review and typically two assessment rounds).
  • Reduce burden on participating SMEs, for example by allowing minimal justification documentation when reviewing resumes, by permitting a single SME to conduct an individual assessment, and only doing a second assessment round for those who pass the first round.

What are the results so far?

  • The Customer Experience working group and USDS launched the first government-wide SME qualifications assessment (QA) pilot. We pooled what ended up being 16 vacancies across three GS levels at 9 participating agencies. A total of 20 SMEs across government joined the pilot to share the work of resume review and interviews. Of 844 applicants, 44 qualified and were placed on certificates. Thus far, there have been 14 acceptances and 18 selections.
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services completed its first SME-QA pilot in just 6 weeks from posting the announcement to issuing the certificates. CMS has nine SMEs participate from three different offices. Of the 12 applicants found qualified, CMS made 10 selections. This was the first pilot that used both the Resume Review Tool and a written assessment to replace the first interview round. CMS started its second pilot for data scientists with a workshop on July 29 and the job posted August 2, 2020.
  • The State Department completed its first pilot for grant management specialists. The main office selecting from the certificate had four openings and filled all four slots with the DE certificate then shared the certificate at State resulting in a fifth selection. State was able to run the pilot largely on its own with the support of our two-day SME-QA training, materials from our website, and contacting us with ad hoc questions. State is currently on its second SME-QA pilot for Foreign Affairs Specialists.
  • The Interior Department completed its first pilot for GS-13 IT specialists in early 2019, resulting in 13 selections. The National Park Service is currently in the process of repeating this again for an additional eight vacancies.

Other successful results were seen at the General Services Administration, HHS, the Interior Department and the Office of Management and Budget.

How have people at the agencies responded to the changes?

In many of the SME-QA roadshows put on by OPM and USDS, there has been actual clapping at the end by hiring managers and HR staff. They point out this is not “new,” but people have stopped doing these practices after much of hiring was automated with self-assessment questionnaires.

They recognize this is a huge shift in current practice, but we’re extremely pleased with the rate of new pilots and the implementation work USDS and OPM have been able to do to help agencies through the new process so they’re empowered to do it again on their own.

How have HR and hiring managers responded?

Hiring managers are by far the most satisfied since they delegate the assessments to the SMEs and then get a final list of truly qualified applicants to make selections. When they see veterans on top of the list, they’ve commented that these are the most qualified veterans they’ve seen for the job. Because the process recommends bulk hiring of 5+ people at a time, hiring managers are able to bring in a diverse pool making selections from veterans, non-veterans, current feds, contractors and private sector applicants of all age groups through one hiring action.

What has it been like for the SMEs who have been involved?

The SMEs have a newfound appreciation for all the work HR has to do in the competitive hiring process. They are also extremely appreciative to be able to participate in qualifications with HR. Despite the significant time it takes SMEs to conduct resume review and assessments on top of their normal workload, all of them have said they would do it again because of the high-quality applicants they have hired through this process.

Are there any other new ideas that might be tested out in the future?

We are trying to balance applicant experience with being able to handle higher applicant volume. Applicant volume is considerable for federal positions, and many of our announcements have had to close in one to five days because we quickly reached our max number of applicants. We’re focused on iterations that could help us handle greater volume without sacrificing the quality of the process. We are working with OPM to run a series of private sector listening sessions this fall to learn more about private sector best practices.

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Avatar photo Nicole Blake Johnson

More of these inclusive hiring practices are needed across government. Everyone benefits, from the hiring managers, to HR to job applicants.