US federal government reintroduces ‘civil service exam’

By on 04/04/2015 | Updated on 27/01/2022

American government HR officials “overwhelmed by résumés and cover letters” have reintroduced the civil service exam after 34 years in order to better identify suitable candidates, The Washington Post has reported.

With some vacancies attracting hundreds of applicants, hiring officials have little to help them identify top talent at a time when waves of senior employees are retiring.

Officials told the Post that ensuring the hiring process is more rigorous is vital because civil servants are notoriously hard to fire, and because agencies tend to promote from within.

“The cost of making a bad hire is so high that you really should invest the time to do it right,” Mary Draper, who is in charge of the State Department’s foreign service exam, said.

And Vanee Vines, spokeswoman for the National Security Agency, said in a statement that tests “predict future performance on the job” and are good guides in hiring decisions. “It is imperative that we hire the best and brightest to help us defend the nation and protect vital networks,” she added.

The exams, called USA Hire, use animated avatars and videos to simulate challenges that could confront employees, testing their reasoning and problem-solving skills.

Tests are taken via the government’s online portal USAJobs and last around 90 minutes.

Scores usually stay valid for a year.

The new tests launched slowly in 2012, but, the Post reports that “momentum has picked up in the past year.”

According to officials at the Office of Personnel Management, which is promoting the initiative, up to 10% of civil service jobs are now being filled based in part on the scores on these new tests.

The original civil service test was abolished by the Nixon administration after a lawsuit in 1972 claimed it was biased because black and Latino applicants did not score as well. A new test was developed, but those groups continued to score poorly. After another discrimination case, the Carter administration signed a consent decree in 1981 agreeing to abolish it.

The new exams still assess general aptitude, as the old-time civil service tests did, but to avoid possible discrimination, the new exams also measure other attributes, such as teamwork, problem-solving and judgment, and are tailored to assess specific job skills.

However, concerns have been raised over opportunities for candidates to cheat the tests and to “game the system”.


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About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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