The SolarWinds hack. The COVID vaccine rollout. Massive organized fraud attacks on our unemployment insurance system. What do these crises have in common? They are all threats to our country that require the federal government have competent, digitally talented people to counter. And we are badly botching the opportunity to hire them.
To start, how do we assess candidates on their skills in technology? Too often, all we do is ask them. According to a data dashboard just released by the Office of Personnel Management, the General Services Administration, and the Office of Management and Budget, across the federal government, 90 percent of competitive, open-to-the-public job announcements relied solely on an applicant's answers to a self-assessment questionnaire and an HR resume review to determine whether candidates are eligible for the position. That means that anyone, even someone with little or no technical experience, may qualify for a technical job as long as they score themselves highly on the self-assessment and put the keywords from the job posting in their resume. This is in part why just under half of all postings that use only self-assessments result in no job offer being made: the hiring manager can see that the candidates selected by this broken process cannot do the job. This wastes enormous amounts of time and resources that those charged with upgrading our digital capabilities don’t have, and it continues to severely limit the federal government's talent pool of digital experts.
And while we waste time churning through slates of unqualified applicants, we turn away talented, mission-driven technologists who are ready, willing, and able to serve their country. The Defense Digital Service (DDS) attempted to hire a brilliant 17 year old hacker who beat more than 600 others in bug finding competitions and was listed by Time as one of the most influential teenagers in the world. He expressed an interest in working for the Department of Defense, but DDS could only consider him as a GS-4 because OPM’s General Schedule Qualification Policies place limits on the minimum amount of work experience or education a person must have for a certain pay scale, regardless of other qualifications. The average salary for an entry-level developer in 2019 was $100,610; a GS-4 makes less than $40,000 in the national capital region. There are many world class technologists willing to take a pay cut to work on national security challenges, but that is too much of a difference to overcome. As DDS points out, he would have been eligible for a higher pay rate and direct hire authority if he had worked at Best Buy for a year.
Variations on this story have played out in research laboratories, combatant commands, and innovation cells across the government.
There is some good news. The United States Digital Service has just partnered with the Office of Personnel Management to develop a Subject Matter Expert Qualification Assessments (SME-QA) process to “create and conduct job related assessments before an applicant is considered qualified.” In other words, rather than asking a candidate to say he or she is an expert Python programmer, the process includes a test for Python programming skills and an interview by another programmer. Only candidates who pass the test are considered qualified and move on to the next phase of the selection process. In the pilots OPM and USDS have run, 100 percent of postings resulted in the hire of a qualified candidate. In addition, the SME-QA process is designed to work especially well for specialized positions with multiple vacancies for the same role. In other words, if there is a high need for many data scientists in one agency or across agencies, one hiring process can attract hundreds of candidates, and SME review can be leveraged across the entire pool on behalf of all the agencies to result in multiple hires through the same process. This exact scenario has already played out to huge success in testing the SME-QA process.
This is a big step forward. However, OPM must not rely on the agencies to change their practices just because of new guidance. They must actively work to spread these practices across government, not just for digital positions, but for all competitive, open-to-the-public job announcements. And, as recommended by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, Congress should grant agencies the authority to waive OPM qualification policies for a limited number of specific billets and position descriptions. This would allow hiring managers and the technical experts who advise them to hire qualified technologists at a reasonable pay grade, even if they lack work experience or a college degree.
Our national security, our recovery from the pandemic, and the public’s trust and faith in government all depend on upgrading our digital competencies in government. Thanks to USDS and OPM, hiring managers in government should no longer have to reject slate after slate of unqualified candidates because the process has failed to select for the skills needed for critical positions. Now let’s call on agency leadership and OPM to work together to ensure that hiring practices actually change, and on Congress to take the next step and open up technology jobs in the federal government to even more qualified candidates. We can’t afford to tell our technical talent to go work selling TVs and laptops for a year and then come back to us if they want to serve. The time to hire the technical talent we need is now.
Jen Pahlka is a former member of the Defense Innovation Board. She is the founder and former executive director of Code for America.