Removing the Roadblocks

Improving the Public Sector Job Application Process

job application

Employers everywhere are fighting to fill jobs. And public sector employers are no different.

A 2022 survey of nearly 300 public sector HR officials, for example, found 79% of respondents saying they were not finding enough applicants to fill open positions.

This inability to attract the necessary talent is affecting operations, and not in positive ways. For instance, 82% said the shortages were contributing to staff burnout. Another 63% said shortages are leading to increased overtime, with 20% of public sector employers reporting cutbacks in the services they’re offering.

There are a few reasons why public sector organizations are having a tough time attracting the talent they need, not the least of which is the fact that they’re seeing fewer applicants in the first place.

For example, recent data indicates a 56% drop in applications per open public sector job from 2021 to 2022, with about a quarter of all current public sector job postings receiving seven applicants or fewer.

The aforementioned survey also posed a number of open-ended questions to participants, who offered some insight into the other factors creating frustration among public sector job seekers. For example, one respondent recalled growing tired with the length of time they spent waiting for a response after applying for a position.

“It took forever. By the time someone reached out to me about a background check, I had been offered [and started training for] a position in the private sector.”

A complex, redundant application process got under at least one candidate’s skin.

“Getting transcripts, references and completing the application and questions was time-consuming and labor-intensive, as well as repetitive.”

Another called out government employers for a lack of communication with job applicants.

“When applying for government jobs, I often do not receive a response or feedback. Applications tend to sit in ‘reviewed.’ If I am not considered for the position, it is helpful feedback to know why or whether the position was filled.”

What’s creating these kinks in the hiring process? IPMA-HR editors spoke with Melissa Barker, vice president of practice development at Phoenix-based recruitment firm the Duffy Group, about the factors combining to slow down public sector hiring, and what employers can do to pick up the pace.

IPMA-HR: How has the job application and recruitment process changed in the overall working world, and how has the public sector done at keeping up with these changes?

Barker: Recruiting practices and processes have evolved, while the application and recruitment process at government agencies has remained stagnant. Gone are the days when government entities could post an open position on their websites and expect hundreds of candidates to respond. At the same time, the labor shortage has been so acute that some government entities are issuing request for proposals to recruiting agencies for help in finding talent.

Knowing talent is at a premium and job candidates have many options, corporate America has become more nimble in the recruiting process. Hiring and HR leaders have learned to adjust the timing of panel interviews to get an offer out in about two weeks.

Conversely, the public sector has a laborious application, internal vetting and interviewing process that can take two months or more. This could include reviewing candidate resumes and qualifications, followed by panel interviews, a request to make an offer and an internal review of the salary based on a step-rate compensation system.

IPMA-HR: What do you see as the biggest factors bogging down government agencies' application processes?

Barker: In some cases, the salary in the public sector’s step-rate system is not commensurate with the salary for similar positions in the industry, which requires additional time and review.

For example, our team recently found the ideal candidate for a county health system position who was willing to make a lateral salary move because he was passionate about the health system’s mission. His current salary and the going salary in the industry for similar positions was at one level, but based on his experience and qualifications, the county health system was offering lower compensation. This required the hiring manager to initiate an appeals process at the organization, adding three weeks to the hiring process.

Another stagnant process is [the way that] public sector employers recruit. Many public-sector organizations continue to rely on the “post and pray” method, assuming this would drive candidates to their websites. This is an outmoded way of thinking, as candidates rarely look for jobs on websites. Instead, employers are coming to them. Public sector employers could benefit from partnering with an external recruiting resource that can more creatively unearth candidates in a tight labor market.

IPMA-HR: What sort of advice would you give public sector employers, in terms of steps they can and should be taking to improve their job application processes and avoid seeing talented candidates get frustrated and opt out of the running? 

Barker: In the long term, public-sector employers should consider overhauling their recruitment and hiring process. Short-term, public-sector employers should look for ways—big and small—to expedite recruiting by consolidating steps in the process and being more responsive to candidates.

It starts with the application process. Public-sector employers could benefit from changing their mindset and thinking more like corporate America when it comes to recruiting.

For example, while the link to a job opening is still posted, public-sector employers could start reviewing the applications received and schedule interviews. Hiring leaders should be open-minded about relocating candidates and flexible in their hiring requirements.

For instance, if the position calls for four years’ experience and the best candidate has 3.8 years of experience, perhaps there is a way to ensure that the top candidate is getting consideration, instead of waiting until the end of the process, which could lead to delays in making a decision and an offer.

Once the interviews begin, public-sector employers could consolidate multiple panel interviews into one to save time and move the hiring process along. The individual leading the interview could distribute a pre-set list of questions in advance and devise a rating system based on answers from candidates. This will enable the team to make a decision and offer more quickly to avoid delays and the risk of losing candidates.

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