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What qualifies someone for a federal position?

On Behalf of | Apr 11, 2022 | Firm News

Two recent news items cast a spotlight on the federal hiring process and the different qualities that can make for good candidates.

First, there was the report from Federal News Network that Congress has advanced a bill that would reform the federal hiring process. Then, there was Nextgov’s profile of Dr. Lindsey Saul, the new chief data and analytics officer at the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA). The profile focused largely on Saul’s career and her rise to her current position.

Together, the two pieces remind us that federal agencies do best when they consider the whole person, rather than getting stuck on a single detail.

A move toward more comprehensive reviews

In its Chance to Compete Act, Congress proposes a key shift toward the use of subject-matter experts. The legislation would task subject-matter experts to help assess candidates’ abilities to perform their potential duties. It’s a move that already has support from a successful pilot, as well as a report from the General Services Administration (GSA) that demonstrates its effectiveness.

The Chance to Compete Act would do more than promote the use of subject-matter expert reviewers. It would also:

  • Draw more attention to skills that are harder to measure quantitatively
  • Reduce the focus on candidates’ educational backgrounds

In other words, you don’t have to study at Harvard, Yale or Stanford to be good at something. You just need to show that you can do the job and do it well, and the Chance to Compete Act aims to ensure the best candidates can better make their cases.

The bill is not yet law. However, it has bipartisan support and appears to align with the current administration’s stated goals.

Proof that the strongest candidate’s career may not follow a linear path

Meanwhile, the story of Dr. Saul and her career seems to offer extra proof that the government does best when it explores the whole picture of a candidate’s application. As Saul noted herself, her journey to becoming the first-ever chief data and analysis officer for the DLA was anything but linear:

  • She studied psychology and performed social work before returning to school for her doctorate
  • She then applied for the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) program, hoping to gain valuable experience inside the upper levels of the federal government
  • She was rejected
  • She applied again and won acceptance
  • She completed several rotations with the PMF before joining the Department of Defense (DOD)
  • In the DOD, she started in the Chief Innovation Office, but she switched to the DLA as it was growing under its first chief, Teresa Smith
  • When Smith decided to retire, she encouraged Saul to apply for her leadership position

The Nextgov profile didn’t include the job description or Saul’s resume, but it noted that the DLA exists to help the government make better, data-driven decisions. Specifically, it noted that, among other things, the DLA helps the Department of Defense track its supply chain and plan its purchases. One might expect the person managing such work would have studied data analysis or information technology.

Instead, Saul notes that she realized she didn’t really need to be a data scientist to do her work. Her background in psychology and behavioral analysis, along with the leadership experienced she gained through the PMF, supplied her with the experience she needed to succeed.

Will changes to the hiring process affect EEOC claims?

If the Chance to Compete Act becomes law, one might wonder if it could possibly complicate the legal arguments from applicants who felt they suffered illegal discrimination. Currently, the government expects its use of subject-matter experts to increase diversity hiring. However, their involvement could potentially lead to less transparency in the hiring process.

As Dr. Saul’s story illustrates, you can’t always expect the best candidate to follow a linear career. Following any hiring process reform, agencies might find it easier to argue they made their decisions based on qualitative decisions. But candidates who feel they didn’t get a fair shot may still be able to find holes in an agency’s decision. The key is often to look for patterns or supporting evidence that show a decision reflected bias against an applicant’s membership in a protected class.


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