Why the Federal Government Struggles to Hire and Fire

April 29, 2015

Lindsay M. Scherber

In a series of investigative articles published earlier this year, Government Executive correspondents Kellie Lunney and Eric Katz explore the often discussed, but little understood, topic of federal human resources policy. Focusing on the federal government’s perplexing hiring and firing procedures, the authors shed light on the opaque web of barriers confronting government managers as they seek to recruit qualified candidates for job vacancies and fire underperforming employees who engage in misconduct or fail to meet their job requirements.

Federal hiring hurdles

Lunney’s probe into federal hiring policies and procedures revealed a multitude of obstacles facing both hiring managers and prospective employees, all of which undermine the government’s ability to efficiently match qualified candidates to the job vacancies they are best suited for. Lunney identified three major hiring obstacles that stood out above the rest: the lengthy federal hiring process, complex special hiring authorities, and the confusing USAJobs application process.

Citing a recent Government Business Council survey of federal employees, Lunney notes that a full 63 percent of respondents selected ‘length of the hiring process’ as a significant impediment to hiring qualified candidates—the highest of any impediment category. Substantiating that concern is the fact that “agencies are supposed to get new employees onboard within 80 days,” but that it can take up to “several months” for certain jobs. Within that period of time, many candidates could easily be recruited and hired by private sector firms, resulting in a loss of candidates who are unwilling or unable to wait out the lengthy government hiring process.

The issue of special hiring authorities is easily the most politically sensitive of the three. Designed to help managers recruit veterans and young workers through mechanisms such as veterans’ preference and the Pathways Programs, special hiring authorities, though well-intentioned, are enshrined in complex rules, which make them difficult to navigate and properly apply. As Lunney points out, discussions about veterans’ preference tend to be among the most controversial. While there is broad support among federal managers for hiring policies that facilitate the recruitment and appointment of veterans throughout the government, Lunney found that some managers are concerned that the preference system can produce pools of applicants who are mismatched for the position, or even “result in poor hires or favoritism.”  

According to Lunney, the main problem with USAJobs.gov, the federal government’s centralized online job posting database, is that it is not very user-friendly. Most notably, the website is “difficult to navigate” and lacks sufficient search mechanisms “to help applicants find positions that meet their interests and qualifications.” Further exacerbating matters, Lunney found that many job descriptions “exceed 1,500 words,” are either overly specific or broad, and are “barely comprehensible” to an untrained reader. The combination of the above-mentioned barriers, it seems, has resulted in an inefficient hiring process that makes it difficult for managers to hire the talent they need and discourages prospective employees from pursuing opportunities in the federal government.

The challenges of firing federal employees

In his counterpart exposé examining the federal government’s firing procedures, Eric Katz underscores a similar theme to that of Lunney’s article: the process for removing a federal employee is complex, lengthy, and can often result in an array of outcomes other than termination. Much like its approach to hiring, the federal government’s employee termination procedures seem to prioritize fairness over efficiency, which affords civil servants greater protections than private sector employees but also contributes to a labyrinth of rules and bureaucratic hurdles.

As Katz shows in his detailed overview of the appeals process, the sheer length and complexity of the proceedings, coupled with the relatively low probability that the action will result in a firing, can deter supervising managers from initiating disciplinary or termination procedures against even the worst employees. Results from the same Government Business Council survey reinforce this perspective: nearly eighty percent of government employee respondents “agreed that federal termination procedures ‘discourage the firing of poor performers.’” Rather than seeking to fire an underperforming employee, Katz found, supervising managers will sometimes have the employee transferred to another agency or office, or even “give good reviews so they get promoted and the reviewing manager no longer has to deal with them.” These practices, though surely not the norm, do little to promote a hard-working, accountable federal workforce.

Opportunities for reform

While Katz and Lunney paint a rather bleak picture of the federal government’s current H.R. policies, they also highlight several potential strategies for improvement and reform. Pointing to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2014 hiring blitz in which it hired more than 1,000 people in one year, Lunney highlights “communication, transparency, and strategic planning from the beginning” as best practices that can be emulated by other agencies. In addition, she found through interviews with HUD personnel that ongoing data sharing among program and H.R. staff can help agencies identify hiring bottlenecks which they can then troubleshoot accordingly.

With regards to the federal government’s employee termination policies, Katz suggests “the momentum for more sweeping reform is growing.” While recognizing that robust civil service protections were established for a reason, Katz highlights a few potential avenues for reform, such as giving agencies the ability to dock employee pay as a result of poor performance or allowing performance to be used as a consideration when making budget-related staff cuts. To reduce the need for these disciplinary measures, however, agencies should also consider policies that encourage more rigorous H.R. training for managers, early dispute resolution, and fluid communication between employees and their supervisors. By adopting cautious H.R. policy reforms and evidence-supported best practices, the government can foster a federal workforce that is even more productive and better able to tackle the multitude of challenges facing our country today.