Bernie Kluger
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
The success of elite hiring programs like the US Digital Service has inspired Congress and federal managers to ask whether agencies would be better able to achieve their missions if direct hire authority were expanded across the government. But this may be the wrong question.

Blog Author:  Bernie Kluger

A recent report by the Partnership for Public Service describes how the US Digital Service (USDS) uses innovative hiring tactics to recruit and deploy top-level information technology experts to work on high-risk technology projects across the federal government. Among the tools in the USDS hiring arsenal is direct hire authority, a hiring flexibility that allows agencies under special conditions to bypass the normal federal competitive hiring process.  The use of hiring flexibilities, according to the report, has been a critical factor in enabling USDS to hire over 600 tech experts and deliver over $500 million in savings.

What Is the Right Question? Rather than asking whether direct hire authority should be expanded, we should be asking whether direct hire authority, or some other factor, drives the success of programs like USDS, and how that success can be most effectively replicated government wide. Available data sources may make it possible to develop evidence-based answers to critical federal workforce management questions.  Specifically, a government-wide analysis of where federal managers are using unconventional hiring authorities, like direct hire, can point to how how the use of such authorities has had an impact on workforce and mission-related outcomes.

Given the level of attention on direct hire authority, one would assume that clear evidence exists on the impact of direct hiring authority on workforce and mission outcomes. Expanding direct hire authority has resulted from a belief that the normal competitive process raises barriers, which deter top-talent from joining the federal workforce and prevent managers from hiring the best candidate for the job.  This presumes that direct hire authority is a “silver bullet” that would eliminate these barriers and get top-talent into the federal workforce in service of the American people.

How Do We Discover an Evidence-Based Answer? There is a surprising lack of analysis on the impact of direct hire authority on actual hiring practice, hiring outcomes, or, most importantly, on mission performance.  Much of what we presume to know about federal hiring is either anecdotal or too highly aggregated to support evidence-based decision-making.  Within the human capital domain, we are ruled by the exception and the generalization.

Despite having decades of hiring and employment data available for analysis, the federal workforce community lacks answers to the most basic questions about direct hire authority:

  • How many vacancies are filled using direct hire authority and other unconventional authorities?
  • Given wide variation across the federal workforce, how do factors other than hiring authority, like pay or location, impact hiring outcomes?
  • How does the use of direct hire authority impact mission-related outcomes like disaster responsiveness or IT project completion?

Fortunately, enough data and enough variation across government exists to develop informed answers.

Understanding Variations in Hiring Practices. In contrast to the common perception that federal hiring is monolithic, meaningful variation occurs across and within federal agencies.   According to the Government Accountability Office, Congress has authorized over 100 hiring authorities, including varieties of direct hire, spanning nearly every function of the federal government.  And in practice, a single authority may be implemented in different ways depending on the office or job vacancy.  These variations make it possible to test empirically what works, under different circumstances, using existing administrative records.

OPM Workforce Data Sources Can Drive Analysis.  Records on government-wide hiring variation are extensive, stored in central data warehouse systems maintained at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). In addition to data about hiring practices, we have structured and unstructured information about applicants and employees.  A sample of publicly accessible data sources on workforce practice and mission-related outcomes includes:

  • Anonymized personnel records including job series, salary, duty station, and demographic information at:  https://www.fedscope.opm.gov/
  • Aggregated analysis of employee responses to the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) at:  https://unlocktalent.gov/
  • IT Dashboard: Detailed reporting on the performance of major IT projects across the federal government with self-reported risk scoring at:  https://itdashboard.gov

Other data sources provide a more complete picture of federal workforce management, but are currently only accessible to a small cohort of analysts in government.  The most relevant of such sources include:

  • Central Personnel Data File (CPDF): Official records of personal actions (e.g., SF-50) structured to support point-in-time snapshots and longitudinal analysis of individual federal employees.
  • Enterprise Human Resources Integration (EHRI) Payroll Data Warehouse: Payroll records of actual pay and place of performance.
  • Over 80 million job applications, including resumes and applicant profiles.
  • Records encompassing 80 percent of federal hiring actions providing measures of hiring program efficiency.
  • Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey: Annual survey of federal employees including questions indicative of management practices and effectiveness.

Expand Access and OPM Workforce Data Can Provide Answers. As a leader at OPM, I learned first-hand about the untapped value of existing federal workforce data -- and its power to challenge basic assumptions about what works.  Leveraging the OPM talent management data systems, my team had access to anonymized data representing 80 percent of all federal hiring actions spanning dozens of federal agencies.

Thanks to the contributions of exceptional hiring experts and advances in analytic tools, we made progress in answering some of the most critical federal workforce management questions:

  • Did regional consolidation of hiring announcements have a positive impact on diversity and vacancy rates? (Yes)
  • How widespread is practice of publishing job vacancies and not reviewing any of the submitted applications? (Very)
  • Do redundant steps in the job application process provide benefits that outweigh the burden on staff and applicants? (No)

We also gained valuable expertise in how to protect privacy and national security in workforce management, without losing fidelity.  These initial explorations of government-wide workforce data demonstrate high potential value from a more comprehensive review.

A Roadmap for Partnership with the Private Sector and Academia.  Could non-governmental researchers analyze OPM workforce data? The recently adopted Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 creates a new path to sharing data for statistical analyses in ways that protect the privacy and security of personnel information.

An initial step towards unlocking OPM workforce data sources would involve the establishment of a broad partnership between government, academia, and the private sector committed to expanding access to federal workforce data. Together, these partners could promote a learning agenda around shared questions with relevance to the American public, while developing new methods for protecting national security and the privacy of federal workers.

This is not a new or untried approach.  Government research partnerships have a long and successful track record of protecting sensitive personal information, ranging from IRS tax filings to health records at the Department of Health and Human Services. For example, in 2014, the National Science Foundation funded a successful project to anonymize federal workforce data using a synthetic data methods, resulting in dozens of published reports validating the team’s approach.

Focusing initially on discovering what works in federal hiring, the initiative could evolve into a federal workforce knowledge base that provides answers to a wider range of critical management questions:

  • Which kinds of work experiences are shared by our most successful federal leaders?
  • How does pay have an impact on recruitment and retention?
  • What are the conditions that drive changes in employee engagement?

Programs like USDS have tested common assumptions about questions like these, and, in so doing, have proven that federal workforce practice can evolve to solve hard challenges facing our nation.  Now it is time to move beyond testing assumptions, to develop new knowledge about federal workforce management and apply that knowledge across the government.

 

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Bernie Kluger served as a senior leader at the US Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration where his responsibilities included overseeing the implementation of strategic initiatives within the President’s Management Agenda. As Deputy Performance Improvement Officer at OPM, Bernie coordinated $2 billion in human capital and IT services government-wide and managed the Presidential Executive Fellows program.

 

 

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