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Paradigm Shifts in Public Administration – Towards New Benchmarks and Best Practices

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

Column 3: Towards New Recruitment and Selection Processes

By Siegrun Fox Freyss

Column 1 of this series covered the meaning of important concepts used in the series. Column 2 dealt with recommended changes in job classification systems to help governments stay on top of the increased complexity of postmodern service delivery systems. The classification system provides the foundation for job descriptions for recruitment and selection purposes, and proposed simplifications of the classification system should streamline hiring procedures as well. The changes reduce the number of steps and ranks to broadbands and combine hundreds of job classes to a more manageable number.

Historically, the ideal of a competent and politically neutral workforce has been at the core of the merit system and great pains have been taken to hire the right individuals. The testing approaches, developed over time or imposed by court rulings, have become classic examples of the modern age. The methods break down complex competencies into specific knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) that can be measured. The extensive use of quantified information in the hiring process is understandable considering the many lawsuits by unsuccessful applicants. To win cases, employers need to have good documentation about their personnel decisions and the quantification provides a certain degree of objectivity.

At times, however, self-interest can get in the way. In recent years, a dozen small cities in the county of Los Angeles were cited for violating merit-based employment practices. However, unprofessional conduct is not limited to small cities. The Los Angeles Fire Department and the Sheriff’s Department of Los Angeles County managed to join the dozen. An article in the Los Angeles Times revealed that “more than 20% of the recruits in the new training class” of the LAFD were “sons or nephews of current members of the force.” The newspaper also “reported that thousands of firefighter candidates were disqualified last April from consideration for the new class … because they failed to submit a key piece of paperwork in a 60-second period” (emphasis mine).

The sheriff of the County of Los Angeles unexpectedly resigned in January 2014 under a cloud of favoritism and various other charges. These revelations were disappointing to many because the sheriff had introduced progressive measures in the county jails in his first term and was generally quite popular. The sheriff is an elected official, but the developments show that managers can change over time and not always for the better.

freyss may

The hiring process bridges modern and postmodern developments, which can lead to conflicts between the human resources (HR) department and line agencies. The HR department tends to see itself as the protector of core principles, such as equal employment opportunity, and can impose rigid rules to ensure compliance. It determines what questions can be asked or how long the short list should be. Line agencies may see the requirement as rule-bound and procedure-driven. They tend to rely on more intangible qualifications: Will the candidates bring new perspectives to the job? Do they provide simplistic or nuanced answers? Can the candidates communicate job-related issues with clarity? Do they show some curiosity about the new job and some excitement about new surroundings? Will they function well in team settings, as team leaders of as team members who will pull their weight?

One cannot always blame the HR department for conflicts with line agencies considering HR has a dual and conflicting mission. On the one hand, the HR department is expected to play a support role, in which it assists line agencies throughout the hiring process, from advertising open positions to attracting a strong applicant pool and applying appropriate, valid tests. But on the other hand, HR also has an oversight role that it must play to ensure line agencies abide by local, state and federal laws.

A third role is emerging for HR departments, the role of change agent or change leader. In this position, the department may lead a strategic planning process as well as spearhead succession planning. These processes can be managed using modern approaches or postmodern ones. In the book Organizations, Rational, Natural, and Open Systems, Richard Scott juxtaposes the two different visions and methods: “A ‘modernist’ mentality seeks to impose order on the chaos, to resolve or suppress the contradictions, to integrate the competing interests and agendas so that a single, harmonious ‘vision’ guides decisions…” “A ‘postmodernist’ view emphasizes the diversity of elements that make up organizations. If uniformity exists, it is because diversity has been suppressed…”

High-tech developments and increased population diversity call for adjustments in existing job descriptions and the creation of new classes of jobs. The changes also require reviewing existing testing and selection procedures and making corrections as needed. However, as mentioned in Column 2, not all future KSAs can be anticipated at the time of hire because of the rapid changes engendered by the high-tech revolution. Employers can deal with this dilemma by hiring individuals who are willing to learn and are open to innovation. In turn, testing instruments need to be assembled that evaluate the candidates on these dimensions.

Governments have been criticized for slow and ponderous selection procedures. Some jurisdictions have responded by decentralizing hiring processes. That leads to the question: Will EEO be protected and nepotism avoided when hiring decisions are decentralized? A mix of modern and postmodern approaches may be appropriate, such as creating partnerships between HR and line agencies. The HR partner can focus on protecting core values and avoiding corruption, while the line agency partner can focus on assessing the candidates’ subject matter competence, as well as their growth potential and acceptance of ambiguity.

Another way to speed up the hiring process is through social media and human resource information systems (HRIS). The International Public Management Association for Human Resources (IPMA-HR), which conducted an extensive benchmarking survey on recruitment in 2013, provides us with some answers. Only one-third of respondents used social media and they used it for various steps in the hiring process, such as announcing job openings and researching candidates’ background. To the question “If you use social media, has it been successful?” a slim majority (51.2%) responded with a yes, 6.4% with a no, and 42.4% with a don’t know. HRISs can be used for testing and tracking applicants as they move through the selection process.

Of course, the adoption of new technology can also slow down operations and lead to frustration among employees and job seekers when the software is not user-friendly or the training is inadequate. On a more ominous level, employers need to be aware of possible semi-fake LinkedIn or Facebook portraits.

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2 Responses to Paradigm Shifts in Public Administration – Towards New Benchmarks and Best Practices

  1. Geoff McLennan Reply

    May 16, 2014 at 11:25 am

    The Recruitment and Selection essay by Seigrun Freyss offers frank observation of an HR world somewhat obsolete. Some executive position recruitments are parsed with continued delay, retesting, nonmerit scoring or otherwise just short of political hiring. Perhaps we have abandoned any hope merit based hiring given the strong politcal ties of some appointed leaders?

  2. Pingback: Paradigm Shifts in Public Administration &ndash...

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