A Playbook for User-Centered Hiring

The Manhattan Municipal Building, at right, with the Hall of Records, at left, near City Hall in New York City.

The Manhattan Municipal Building, at right, with the Hall of Records, at left, near City Hall in New York City. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

A new analysis of government hiring found the "very people they need to make government more responsive to the public are the people driven away by the poor user experience."

When Genevieve Gaudet needed to assemble a new team of designers and engineers for New York City government, she started noticing some of the pitfalls of the government job application process. She had, of course, experienced the hiring process herself when she applied for her own job. Working on the other side of the process, however, made some of the frustrations for applicants more apparent to her.

Gaudet, who now works for the public benefit corporation Nava, noticed government job descriptions often contained lots of jargon, making it difficult for applicants to figure out what the job entailed and who it wanted for the position. Postings used acronyms and described teams that might not be familiar to someone outside of government. Sometimes the listings showed pay scales with range of $50,000 or more.

“Of course, people don’t know how to interpret that,” Gaudet said.

Dave Seliger, executive director of the nonprofit Public School, an organization that is helping local governments build the next generation of public servants, noted similar barriers to good applicants during his time in government. Often, he found the heavily legalized listings didn’t accurately market the excitement of the actual position.

For example, he said, look at a typical job listing dryly advertising a government IT position.

“When you find out that it’s a job that helps keep the city running, then it becomes a much better job opportunity,” Seliger said about the disconnect between the job description and the actual job expectations.

Yet multiple studies have pointed to the fact that hiring technologists will only become more important for governments and civil society as they are asked to offer their services online. And some of these hiring issues may be why they struggle to fill these important positions with the  employees they need.  

Hiring managers routinely complain about the lack of qualified candidates for positions. Code for America saw this as a problem because in order for governments to serve the American public in the 21st century, the nonprofit believes governments need to be able to recruit 21st century talent. So, in the fall of 2016, Code for America started investigating ways governments could meet that challenge, by launching a talent initiative to study roadblocks governments face when trying to recruit the best talent for these positions.

Gaudet and Seliger are two of the current and former civil servants who partnered with Code for America studying government hiring processes. By interviewing 28 people in all parts of the job seeking process, from those who have a job in government to those considering a job in government, the study identified some common themes preventing good people from applying and getting jobs in government.

“We realized that we were not going to solve the problem of helping governments hire and retain talent just by putting more people into the funnel,” said David Huebner, the director of Code for America's Talent Initiative.

He said it became clear during the project that too many people were falling out of the process or not starting the application process at all due to poor user experience.

“We strongly believe that by applying a more user-centered, data-driven approach, these organizations will be able to fundamentally change the way they get the talent they need to improve other services as well,” Huebner said.

During the project, they came across many governments innovating their hiring practices and wanted to share those stories as inspiration to others.

As a result, Gaudet, Seliger and the team at Code for America compiled a playbook highlighting 10 parts of the recruiting process which might create barriers in finding the right candidate for the position. The recommendations don’t require policy changes. These simply require teams and hiring managers to start thinking about the ideal candidate earlier in the process. The playbook also provides real-world examples which have worked for other governments across the United States.

Design the Job for the Team Member You Want

When Code for America started studying the employment process, Monique Baena-Tan, the lead researcher on the project, noticed that frustration among job applicants often began with the job listing itself. To save time, many government HR departments recycled old job descriptions which didn’t necessarily accurately describe the current opening. This may have actually cost time by discouraging good applicants, who thought they didn’t meet the requirements, from applying.

The listings also contained acronyms and referred to teams people outside of government wouldn’t understand.  Listings often crossed off all the legal requirements, but lacked personality to inspire a prospective employee to apply for the position.

As a result, applicants who had never worked in government before had a hard time understanding the job or visualizing how their skill set might fit in the organization and thus, didn’t apply. Governments likely lost good candidates before the hiring process even started. The good news is this can be prevented if the team spends a little more time crafting and marketing the job posting specifically for the person they envision joining their team.

Meeting Candidates Where They Are

Once the job posts, the study found another barrier: making sure candidates see the job listing.

Often, those searching for jobs couldn’t locate listings buried on government websites. In some cases, it was also hard to locate the job description or a team description to figure out what the job entailed.

Governments should work to make this information visible on the website. In addition, Code for America also worked to put those listings in a central, accessible spot by launching its own job board. In the first quarter of 2017, more than 15,000 job seekers came to the job board and more than 1500 filled out information about themselves and the job they were looking to find.

Guide Applicants Through the Process

It is no secret that the long, bureaucratic hiring process can be discouraging itself. From interviews to background checks, it is important to remember the steps of the application process can be murky to applicants who may not have experience working in government.

“Why would you want to work for government if you can’t figure out the hiring process,” Seliger said.

A little transparency can go a long way in keeping the applicant engaged in the process. Something as simple as a graphic on your website or a flyer after an interview about the next steps can help prospective employees know what to expect. It’s also important to keep the applicant informed about how they are progressing in the system in an authentic and personalized way, even if there is no news to report.

Looking Toward the Future

The playbook is just the beginning of Code for America’s work studying how government HR can be more responsive to job applicants.  Through practical advice and examples from other cities of successfully deployed strategies, Code for America hopes to offer some real world solutions for improving hiring practices and reducing the time spent hiring for positions.

The stakes are high here. Governments are trying to hire employees with a skillset that was never previously a part of “government” work. The very people they need to make government more responsive to the public are the people driven away by the poor user experience.

In addition, some of these recommendations have implications outside the technologist sphere as the current workforce ages and governments need to hire more employees. For instance, Seliger said about a third of the civil servants in New York City are retirement eligible. In Los Angeles, he says that figure is closer to 46 percent.

“A grey wave is about to hit government so finding new talent will be even more important in the years to come,” Seliger said.

Melissa Yeager is a writer, as well as an open government and transparency advocate.

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