Another of the most daunting areas of government service is just getting in the door. Federal hiring is an extremely complex and lengthy process.
This is a massive topic, impossible to cover in a single article. You should consult with your human resources team whenever attempting to hire new staff.
Almost all jobs available in the federal government are listed on USA Jobs, a government-run website. However, it can be very hard to find positions or understand what a given role is actually asking for. Most postings use large amount of boilerplate text, and generic job titles, further confusing matters.
In general, when a new staff role is created by an agency or an existing role becomes vacant, a job description is generated and then posted on USA Jobs. In many cases, technology roles are only posted for a week or less, so it’s important to check the site very frequently if you’re looking. Applicants can apply for jobs directly through the website.
The hiring process is very regimented and controlled, so unlike the private sector, reaching out to a friend for a recommendation for a job may not be as helpful - but it’s still a good idea to ask if they can tell you more about what the role actually does.
Resume Review Process
Most agencies typically expect resumes to be in “government format,” a regimented style that lists more information than typically seen in private sector resumes. Here’s an example from the SEC website. (Note that roles of Senior Executive Service (SES) rank require a different format entirely.)
Jobs typically appear twice on the website, one posting for current permanent government staff to apply, and separately a posting for the public and non-permanent staff. Current government staff are usually considered first for roles. Additionally, anyone with previous U.S. military or qualified government-sponsored volunteer service (for instance Peace Corps or AmeriCorps) receives additional credit in the evaluation process. The former is known as Veterans Preference.
Although Veterans Preference and other service preferences are generally a positive thing, the way that they are typically applied at most agencies is to apply additional points in the hiring process at the beginning of the evaluation. As a result, candidates with these backgrounds may end up at the “top” of the interview list even if they do not have any relevant experience or knowledge of the job in question. This can be a detriment to both the hiring agency and the veteran themselves. The Subject Matter Expert (SME) Review alternative process avoids this problem.
After the application period closes, typically a member of the Human Resources (HR) team in charge of the hiring will review resumes to check if they have the correct keywords listed in the job posting. This usually happens before the actual hiring manager gets the filtered list of resumes. As a result, it can be advantageous to “keyword stuff” key phrases into resumes. Again, a way to avoid this is the Subject Matter Expert (SME) Review process.
Note that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) strongly recommends against using algorithms, particularly any sort of machine learning or artificial intelligence, for resume review or any candidate evaluation.
Subject Matter Expert (SME) Review
Due to the large difficulties the government has experienced in hiring technology talent, the The United States Digital Service (USDS) worked with The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to create a new hiring process that would better assess candidates for technology-related positions. Any federal agency can use this modified process today. There are a few noteworthy changes in this process:
- Resumes are often capped at 2-5 pages to eliminate the need for long lists of information in “government format” resumes.
- Instead of having HR staff review resumes for keywords, the hiring manager and any designated SMEs can review the resumes to see if they meet the requirements.
- A structured interview (and a written assessment, if desired and applicable) is conducted after resume review in order to determine whether a candidate is qualified to be placed on the hiring certificate(s).
- Any veterans preference or other relevant service points are added at the end of the evaluation process after candidates are placed on the hiring certificates, rather than the beginning in the standard process.
Each position in government is classified under a job series code number. Although the definitions of these roles are fixed, there is a lot of flexibility in how a given job may be classified.
Typically, most cybersecurity positions are classified as 2210. However, other IT roles are often classified in this category for Direct Hire Authorities reasons. For hiring managers, this means that non-cyber roles listed as 2210s will often receive a very large number of cyber-focused applicants (sometimes up to 90%!) who may not have the relevant experience requested.
Other commonly-used job series for hiring IT-related positions include 301 and 343.
The standard pay scale for government is called the General Schedule. These roles are denoted on job postings with a scale number (GS-##). Typically, technology roles in government are GS-13 to GS-14, with supervisory or highly-technical roles are often GS-15. Each level of the scale has a pay range with ten individual steps that staff will move up via pay raises from good performance reviews.
These pay rates are adjusted for locality with increases in urban areas. Although GS-15 step 10 is the formal top of the pay range, because there is a pay cap (currently $176,300 in 2022) for the general schedule, staff may hit the top of the range as early as GS-15 step 7. In these cases, staff do not receive any additional pay when moving to higher steps.
The SES is not subject to these limits, and the pay rates go much higher, up to $203,700 in 2022.
Special roles and specific agencies may have higher higher pay rates as well. For instance, there may be special pay grades for [2210 Cybersecurity Roles]. The agencies that regulate financial institutions also typically have higher pay scales, including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)’s CG scale which reaches $199,590, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) SK scale which has 17 levels (instead of 15) topping out at $213,881 before locality adjustment. As a result, jobs at these agencies are highly competitive.
Categories & Types of Service
There are three “categories” of service in the government: Competitive Service, Excepted Service, and Senior Executive Service.
Competitive Service jobs make up the majority of all roles in the government. These roles are “standard” government jobs, with no special requirements or concerns. As suggested by the name, these staff can apply to internal-to-government job postings. Typically there is a 1-year probationary period for these jobs.
Excepted Service staff are federal employees without competitive status. These are typically term appointees, and/or those hired via Direct Hire Authorities. Typically, but not always, these are staff with term appointments.
Senior Executive Service (SES) are senior leadership jobs in the government. These staff can be either career staff or political appointees. Applying for SES jobs is especially difficult, and requires a special resume format that includes documentation of the 22 Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs). Staff must be reviewed and approved by an SES board as part of the hiring process, but once approved they do not need to repeat the approval process. Existing federal staff must have been GS-15 or equivalent for at least a year beforehand.
Chief Information Officer (CIO)s are almost always SES, but other “C-suite” staff may not be. At larger agencies, some or all staff directly beneath the CIO may be SES, but this is not comparatively common. It has long been noted that the SES is lacking in diversity, being predominantly older white men.
All staff are also either categorized as Career, meaning regular federal employees, or Political, meaning they have been appointed by the President for that job. Typically political staff leave at the end of a president’s term. Most senior leadership in an agency is usually political, but CIOs may be either career or political.
It is possible to move from a political appointee to a career staff position, commonly referred to as “burrowing.” This is generally considered to be a bad practice and undermining the purpose of a non-political government, it does still happen.
Term & Temporary Appointments
Agencies may hire staff for either Permanent roles without an expiration, or Term or Temporary appointments. This means that the staff’s position expires after a certain period of time. For government technology positions, it is common to see term appointments for 2 or 4 years, usually with a potential option for the agency to extend the term for the same length of time once - these are commonly known as “2+2” or “4+4.” For instance, Cybersecurity 2210s or Digital Services Experts are often hired as term appointees.
In most cases, term appointees are Excepted Service members, not Competitive Service, meaning they must apply for any government jobs with the rest of the public.
Other Staffing Methods
There are several other ways that agencies can acquire additional staffing resources. Notably among these are detail programs, where a current federal staff member can be temporarily assigned to another agency. This is often how USDS supplies staff resources to agencies (detailed from The Office of Management and Budget (OMB)). The salary for the employee may be paid by either their home or host agency, this must be negotiated in advance. The Intergovernment Personnel Act also allows for detailing staff from or to U.S. state, local, or tribal governments as well.
Additionally, there are several well-known fellowships, including the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIFs), Presidential Management Fellows (PMFs), and the United States Digital Corps (not to be confused with USDS). Most agencies also have internship programs similar to the private sector as well.
Direct Hire Authorities
There are several methods to hire through expedited means, skipping steps in the process or just directly appointing staff into positions. Veterans preference does not apply when selecting individuals under Direct Hire Authority. Outside of political positions, there are several common Direct Hire Authorities used to expediently hire technology staff into government. Staff typically still go through an application and interview process, but it is possible for them to simply be appointed to these roles without any of these steps. These roles are usually term appointments in the Excepted Service, but not always.
There are both government-wide direct hire authorities as well as agency-specific or mission-specific ones. These authorities often have a limited period of time for which they can be used. Currently, the most commonly used authority for technology professionals across government is the Information Technology Management (Information Security), GS-2210 authority.
Previously, there existed a callout for Digital Services Experts under the Schedule A authority also used for staff with disabilities. This was originally used to staff the first employees under USDS and 18F.