Changes at Office of Personnel Management

How will these changes affect all of you federal employees out there?  -GFS


OPM to modify senior executive selection process

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The Office of Personnel Management is adjusting the process federal agencies use to select members for the Senior Executive Service, following a pilot project that won high praise from applicants.

In a Jan. 12 memorandum to agency human resources heads, acting Director Michael Hager said OPM is developing an improved version of a new selection process tried out at eight agencies from June 1, 2008, to Nov. 15, 2008.

During the test run, agencies advertised 61 vacancies by asking applicants to submit a record of accomplishments or a résumé in lieu of narratives focused around five broad executive core qualifications. Applicants had characterized the narratives as too cumbersome and some had hired experts to help write them.

Agencies advertised 34 of the SES vacancies using the accomplishment record approach, in which job-seekers were asked to submit a more streamlined application that targets selected competencies of the five core qualifications. The remaining 27 vacancies were announced using the résumé-based approach, in which applicants were asked to submit only a standard résumé. Both methods drew heavily on structured interviews of well-qualified candidates.

“These interviews to a large degree took the place of the lengthy [executive core qualifications] narrative statements typically required of candidates under the traditional SES selection process,” Hager said. “In this way, the pilot attempted to make the hiring process more inviting to applicants by shifting some of the burden from them to agency staff.”

The project also tested the use of virtual qualification review boards, OPM-administered independent panels of senior executives that assess the qualifications of Senior Executive Service candidates. Using an automated system, board members were able to review candidates without actually convening at OPM. “This method seems to hold considerable promise as a way to streamline this critical OPM function without diminishing the quality of the decisions rendered,” Hager said.

Results from the pilot project indicate that it was successful in shifting the burden from the applicant to human resources staff, he said. The pilot produced a 50 percent increase in applicants compared to the traditional method, with the résumé-based approach attracting more than twice as many non-federal applicants.

Still, HR staffers said they found the new approaches somewhat unwieldly, noting that the streamlined applications and structured interviews required extra work. But for agencies with the most hires under the pilot project, there were fewer objections as staff became more practiced in the processes. Those agencies included the Homeland Security Department.

Hager said OPM will improve the pilot methods, taking into account some of the concerns of staff and applicants, and will provide training within the next few months to agencies that want to use the new approaches. After completing the training, he said, agencies will be able to choose between the new processes and the traditional method.



OPM suspends executive promotion boards


The Office of Personnel Management issued a governmentwide moratorium Friday on processing Senior Executive Service Qualifications Review Board cases, in a move aimed at allowing new Obama administration agency leaders to weigh in on the career senior executives they will work with.

In a memorandum to federal chief human capital officers, acting Director Michael W. Hager said OPM called for the suspension “to ensure the incoming head of the agency will have the full opportunity to exercise his or her prerogative to make or approve executive resource decisions that will impact the agency’s performance during his or her tenure.”

The review boards are OPM-administered independent panels of senior executives who assess the qualifications of candidates to enter the SES.

Under federal law, OPM has the authority to suspend processing QRB cases whenever an agency head departs. Since President Bush requested that all presidential appointees submit their resignations by Dec. 19, OPM ordered a governmentwide suspension that took effect immediately.

Hager stated in the memo that he would consider exceptions to the policy on a case-by-case basis. “While a QRB moratorium is intended to preserve the prerogatives of an incoming agency head,” he wrote, “this must be balance



GAO backs boost in oversight of executive pay-for-performance

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The government should improve the certification process for federal agencies with performance-based pay systems for members of the Senior Executive Service, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.

The report (GAO-09-82) found that while oversight of the systems by the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget generally was satisfactory, the two could identify ways to further improve and streamline the certification process for the SES pay system and provide agencies with the guidance, tools and training needed to implement those systems.

Currently, agencies are allowed to raise the SES pay cap from $158,000 to $172,200 if OPM and OMB agree that an agency’s appraisal system meets nine certification criteria. Those include a requirement that SES performance is linked to the organization’s goals.

Two Senate subcommittees requested the report, which examined policies and procedures for evaluating SES performance at six agencies — the Defense, Energy, State and Treasury departments, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and U.S. Agency for International Development.

“Effective performance management systems that hold executives accountable for results can help provide continuity during times of leadership transition, such as the upcoming change in administration, by maintaining a consistent focus on organizational priorities,” GAO said.

The report found that the selected agencies except USAID provided organizational performance assessments and communicated the importance of such assessments to reviewing officials.

The report also noted that senior executives were concentrated at the top two rating levels during the fiscal 2007 appraisal cycle, an issue that raises questions about the extent to which meaningful distinctions on performance were crafted. OPM has emphasized that forced distributions of performance ratings are prohibited, but it has not provided specific guidance to agencies on how to determine nuances in performance while avoiding the perception of forced distributions, the report said.

“Communicating this information … can help agencies begin to transform their cultures to one where a fully successful rating is valued and rewarded,” GAO concluded.

The report also found that all the selected agencies’ systems have safeguards in place, including higher level reviews of appraisal recommendations and transparency in communicating aggregate results.

GAO recommended that OPM communicate better with agencies on accountability involving certification. Senior-level officials at the selected agencies suggested that OPM move to an electronic submission process and lengthen certification coverage beyond two years once agency systems reach the fully certified level.

USAID should provide uniform organizational performance assessments to reviewing officials to help inform their recommendations, the report said.

In response to a draft of the report, acting Director Michael Hager said OPM already has taken several steps to improve its communication with agencies, particularly through workshops, forums, activities of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council and briefings. OPM also plans to conduct additional workshops on system certification using the SES performance appraisal assessment tool, which was recently introduced to improve the process, he added.




Twenty percent of senior executives unprepared for transition

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One-fifth of Senior Executive Service members have no knowledge of presidential transition activities at their agencies, according to a new survey by the National Academy of Public Administration.

The survey results, released on Thursday at the academy’s fall meeting, indicated that most senior executives appear to be making traditional preparations for the handoff, such as compiling information on agency budgets and mandates, and scheduling briefings on key programs and initiatives. But 21 percent of executives said they were not aware of such actions.

“I’m a charter member of the SES, and the response of 20 percent of existing senior executives who said they could not answer the question of the transition activities under way at their agencies — that’s deplorable,” said Kristine Marcy, an associate at the consulting firm McConnell International, during a presentation of the survey results. “The whole premise of the Senior Executive Service is that you have the management skills and the leadership skills to step up to the plate.”

The questionnaire, which was distributed to 4,799 senior executives during September and October, had a 23 percent response rate. The goal was to determine how to best cultivate effective partnerships between career and political leaders in the next administration.

Marcy said executives who lacked transition knowledge might have a harder time forging relationships with appointees, and advised the academy to help train them. “It may mean they’re risk-averse,” she said, “but that’s another troubling fact we need to deal with in government.”

Most senior executives who responded to the survey said they had not been through a presidential transition in their current role, and 33 percent reported they had not experienced a shift in political leadership at their agency. Fifty-one percent of respondents said they have been in the government for more than 20 years.

Executives identified confirmation delays, a lack of trust between career and political officials, and appointee reluctance to identify and leverage the expertise of career employees as having the greatest potential to slow the transition. Responses also suggested that senior executives see their roles at federal agencies as internally focused, while they view political appointees as working externally, particularly with Congress.

NAPA recommended that executives conduct briefings on programs, the budget and strategic initiatives; learn how the goals and management styles of incoming appointees align with the organization; and provide honest counsel when appointees seek their help.

“There’s a responsibility for career executives to prepare their organizations,” Marcy said. “They have the responsibility for cross-training and cross-orientation with their peers and with their subordinate staff, and I think sometimes that’s lost.”

Meanwhile, NAPA conducted a separate survey of current Senate-confirmed presidential appointees to gauge their perspectives and to provide advice to the next generation of agency leaders. An interim report, also released at Thursday’s meeting, said appointees listed managing and evaluating employee performance and measuring results among their most important responsibilities.

Current appointees also highlighted the importance of working with career employees, and cited leadership and negotiation skills as the most vital to their management strategy. They said it was critical for career employees to have knowledge of agency policies and processes and to support goals set by the new leaders.

Bush appointees also ranked the Program Assessment Rating Tool and executive branch score card as the most helpful in achieving their agencies’ missions, with more than 40 percent recommending that the next administration retain and modify those processes.

In addition, 45 percent of political appointees reported receiving no orientation when they assumed leadership, while 33 percent said they received an orientation but only at the agency level. Eighty-five percent said they wanted more training but could not agree on how it should work.

Edward DeSeve, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government, said the next step will be to share information from the appointee survey with President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team, with the goal of establishing a training curriculum for appointees and career executives. NAPA plans to produce and distribute a final report by Dec. 31, he said.

“We think this is very important — this idea of listening and trusting,” DeSeve said. “Another one of my theories is that SES and PAS can be trained together … in a way that has both groups working together to be most effective as senior management.”




OPM issues guide to overhauling federal hiring process

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The Office of Personnel Management on Friday launched an initiative designed to streamline the recruitment and hiring processes at federal agencies.

The hiring guide, which was developed by OPM and the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, aims to simplify the federal hiring process and improve the applicant’s experience with it, according to a memorandum from OPM acting Director Michael Hager.

“There is broad agreement that the current competitive hiring process could be improved,” the guide stated. “These combined frustrations make it more difficult for the federal government to hire qualified employees in the stiff competition for the top talent.”

OPM announced plans for the initiative at a congressional hearing in May. The plan focuses on the applicant’s hiring experience by ensuring they understand the process, receive timely and clear communications and, once hired, are quickly acculturated to federal agencies.

The roadmap encourages agencies to engage first in workforce planning, determining the exact skills and staff they need to accomplish their missions. The guide also advises agencies to make recruitment an ongoing process that requires attention even when they are not actively seeking to fill jobs, and urges them to use all the available tools to attract a sufficient pool of qualified and diverse applicants.

The guide also encourages agencies to reduce the length of the complete hiring process — from when a manager recognizes the need to fill a position to the time a new hire starts — to 80 days or less. OPM also emphasized the importance of managing applicants’ expectations by facilitating communication at various points during the process.

“At some point, it really is in the best interest of the agency to spend some time communicating with the people they’re most interested in,” said John Crum, director of the Office of Policy and Evaluation at the Merit Systems Protection Board, in a recent interview. “A lot of people will wait longer if they perceive they have a good chance.”

The initiative also seeks to simplify the security clearance process for applicants and ensure a positive orientation experience for new hires. “As with any new relationship, how the agency treats a new employee during the first interactions leaves a lasting impression,” the guide states.

Hager requested that agencies establish baselines against the roadmap’s governmentwide measures and set aggressive targets to establish an implementation approach. Agencies will report their baselines and one-year improvement targets in the 2008 human capital management report, due to OPM by Dec. 15, Hager said.

OPM noted in the guide that previous attempts to reform the federal hiring process have involved individual stovepiped approaches, which have not fully addressed the hiring needs of agencies. As a result, OPM launched the end-to-end plan as part of a package of initiatives introduced earlier this year to improve federal hiring.

In early April, OPM created a streamlined job announcement for specific positions in the areas of accounting, acquisition, information technology, patent and trademark, law enforcement and secretarial work. OPM also brokered an agreement across major agencies to create a repository of qualified applicants for future entry-level acquisition positions.

The federal personnel office also launched a pilot project to ease the application process for Senior Executive Service candidates to attract seasoned employees whose résumés clearly demonstrate the extent of their experience and accomplishments.

“One of the critical parts of this initiative will require agencies to track and measure all associated actions,” Hager said. “We strongly encourage agencies to utilize the CHCO Council network to share any best practices, including automated tools that might be useful for implementing and tracking progress.”