Farewell Federal Essays. Hello Assessments

Oct 29, 2010
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Monday will mark an event so momentous it took a presidential order to make it happen. On Nov. 1 the Office of Personnel Management — the U.S. government’s HR arm — will no longer require written essays to apply for a job.

A cover letter and resume will be enough to make a job seeker an applicant for federal employment. That’s not to say an essay will never be required — just not as part of the initial application.

The Center for Human Capital Innovation thinks enough of this step that it’s hosting a “Hail and Farewell” ceremony and reception to mark the day. The director of the OPM himself, John Berry, will lead the event.

As the Center describes it, “The ‘Hail’ is to welcome the use of cover letters and resumes in the federal hiring process; the ‘Farewell’ is a sendoff to the requirement of KSA essays for initial application.”

These essays detailing a candidate’s knowledge, skills, and abilities have been such an important part of the federal hiring process that a cottage industry developed to help candidates. Just like the resume-writing business, a candidate could hire out the crafting of a KSA paying anywhere from $100 on up.

The new procedure will no doubt put a big dent in that business, but it will help assessment vendors, since the expectation is that government agencies will rely more and more on assessment testing to make hires. In fact,tops on the OPM’s list of help for federal agencies is an extensive “Assessment Decision Guide” covering the breadth of issues involving assessment testing of all kinds. Written for government HR professionals, the guide is worth reviewing by private sector recruiters looking for a grounding in the use of assessments, it’s that thorough and clear.

So much of a sea change is the elimination of the KSA essay program that three of the government’s largest assessment providers — PDRI, HumRRO, and Aon Consulting — joined together in the Alliance for Hiring Reform to collaborate with the OPM and federal agencies on expanding assessment use.

“The President’s executive mandate of May 11th states Federal government agencies will no longer use written narratives as an application tool after November 1st. That means they need something else,” explained Elaine Pulakos, COO, PDRI. She was the driving force behind creating the alliance, explaining in an interview that though the three companies compete for business, the task of educating federal recruiters and HR professionals about assessments and working with them to develop tests was too large for any one company.

“Most government agencies,” Pulakos says, “do ‘tell me,’ not ‘show me’.’ — Tell me what you’ve done. Tell me how you’ll do it (the job). — That’s not good candidate assessment. Now, because of the changes the President ordered, they will be looking for different tools.”

OPM will soon launch a pilot program using assessments very similar to those in use by the private sector to evaluate candidates for a dozen of the most commonly recruited positions in the government.The program is targeted to entry-level position and each of the companies in the Alliance is participating in some fashion.

“We want a well-rounded applicant,” explains Pulakos, who says the assessments will not only measure skills and knowledge, but behavior, aptitude, and other relevant traits.

The point of the pilot prgram, Pulakos explains, is to demonstrate the predictive value of the tests to the federal agencies that have previously relied on the KSA essay to evaluate candidates. The program will also be used to validate the tests. Down the road, hiring managers will be surveyed on their opinion of the effectiveness of the assessments.

Some federal agencies — the FBI, CIA, State Department, and a few others — have used assessments as part of the vetting process for years. However, the bulk of those receiving the 10-12 million annual applications, relied on the essay. Switching to an assessment, even if they create their own, is going to have a nationwide impact.

“Millions of people will be taking assessments who never did (before),” Pulakos says. “It could indeed have that impact of increasing the use of assessments.”

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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