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DOD makes progress in civilian hiring reform

WASHINGTON -- Until recently, applying for a civilian job at the Defense Department was an exercise in navigating through a byzantine federal hiring process and amassing thick application packets, with applicants sometimes waiting up to a year for any word on their applications.

Pasquale M. Tamburrino Jr., the deputy assistant secretary of defense for civilian personnel policy, said the practice left defense offices short of critical skills for extended periods and discouraged the best candidates from even considering federal service.

"If you are going to be in the marketplace, competing for the best and brightest, which is what we want, we want to be the employer of choice," he said. "And if you make it hard to apply, you are going to lose in the marketplace."

In an effort to attract the best job candidates, DOD is making good on President Barack Obama's mandate last year to improve the federal hiring process, officials said.

DOD launched its own hiring reform initiative two years ago, and it's revolutionizing the way the department processes about 250,000 hiring actions a year, Mr. Tamburrino said.

The typical timeframe for hiring new employees already has been cut from an average of 155 days to 116, he said.

"We're pretty happy with that, but we are not stopping there," he said. His goal is to reduce that to the administration's goal of about 80 days.

The 10-step DOD hiring reform initiative covers the full spectrum of the hiring process to make it not only faster, but also simpler, less bureaucratic and more transparent, he explained.

It makes applying for a DOD job more in line with what the private sector offers, he added, and ensures hiring managers have the tools they need to advertise and fill vacancies.

It builds a closer partnership between hiring managers and human resources officials to expedite the hiring process and make it a better experience for everyone involved, Mr. Tamburrino said.

For applicants, gone is Standard Form 171, the official federal resume that could run 15 to 20 pages. Also gone is the requirement that job seekers write essays proving they have the proper knowledge, skills and abilities, called KSAs, for the job.

Applications have gone electronic, filed through the Office of Personnel Management's governmentwide USAJobs portal. And once applicants enter their profile into the system, detailing their education, work history and skills, that information propagates all of their other job applications.

After they press "send," applicants are no longer left wondering if their application has gone into a "black hole," Mr. Tamburrino said.

"People are getting feedback when they submit their application," he said. "They are getting a response: 'Your application is in the queue. It has been received by the (human resources) office. It is being processed.'"

Any questions that need to be cleared up are addressed early on to ensure they don't slow down the process.

DOD's hiring reform initiative doesn't stop with the application process, officials said. Hiring managers are adopting new, streamlined methods to advertise their positions and interview the best-qualified candidates.

The days of "convoluted vacancy announcements that were almost unique to every individual job we advertised" have fallen by the wayside, Mr. Tamburrino said. Now, rather than custom writing every vacancy announcement, hiring managers are encouraged to use standardized templates that cover basic job functions at the designated occupational series and grade level. Minor edits to those templates ensure they properly describe the particular job being filled.

"We think that makes it go a lot faster," Mr. Tamburrino said. "We are teaching managers how to do structured interviews and how to write better job opportunity announcements."

Much of that instruction is provided through the new online Hiring Managers Toolkit, which DOD started rolling out about eight months ago and continues to refine.

The toolkit offers guides, tip sheets and checklists to help hiring managers better partner with their human resources servicing centers, Mr. Tamburrino said.

The toolkit has become the gold standard among federal agencies, with OPM and others wanting to adopt it as well, he said.

"We routinely get feedback on that toolkit, that it is one of the most forward-leaning, innovative tools in the federal government," Mr. Tamburrino said. "We are unaware of any other executive agency that has a toolkit with as many tools in it and as many information pieces in it to help hiring managers. We think we have a lock on the market."

Another key to DOD's hiring reform initiative are the human resources professionals themselves, he said.

"You are responsible for providing the very best in customer service," Mr. Tamburrino said to his HR professionals. "If an organization comes to you seeking advice, you must give clear, plain-language advice on how to address their challenge."

As subject-matter experts who understand the nuances of sometimes daunting federal hiring regulations and know what it takes to attract and recruit good talent, HR professionals are valuable partners in helping hiring managers navigate the hiring process, he said.

As DOD starts realizing the benefit of its hiring reform initiative, Mr. Tamburrino said, he's seeing a lot of enthusiasm about its possibilities.

Feedback, garnered through surveys, gives job applicants and hiring managers alike an opportunity to weigh in on the improvements.

Mr. Tamburrino said it also helps to uncover shortcomings in an effort to further refine the process.

Regardless of how much the process improves, Mr. Tamburrino said he never expects to be able to declare "mission accomplished."

"I don't think this is ever going to be over," he said. "This is continuous process improvement, and I don't think we are ever going to be satisfied with where we are."

In the meantime, Mr. Tamburrino said, he's satisfied with the direction the process is taking DOD's hiring process.

"It's timeliness and quality, balanced," he said. "It's success for the applicant and success for the manager, balanced."

These initiatives have eliminated barriers to attracting the broadest, most talented workforce for the department's work in caring for military members and their families, conducting research, running depots and shipyards, and even developing the next-generation of weapons systems, Mr. Tamburrino said.

"Where else are you going to do that?" he asked. "We think we are a great place to work, and we give people at every level of experience a great opportunity to do really unique stuff. So we want people to gravitate to us, and we want an ability to really pick out the crown jewels that exist out there in the workforce and say, 'Come work with us.'"

Ultimately, Mr. Tamburrino said, he'd like to see the hiring reform initiative expand its focus to "employment reform."

He describes that as an effort to improve the way DOD manages the careers of the civilian employees it recruits.

"To me, it is a whole lifecycle event," he said. "Getting you in is just one step."