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Lessons Learned: Piloting the SME-QA Process at the State Department

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In 2020, we highlighted an innovative process that worked to improve hiring and its government-wide pilot for federal customer experience positions on our Federal CX Blog. Since then, agencies like the U.S. Department of State have piloted the Subject Matter Expert Qualification Assessments (SME-QA) process as a way to increase the quality of applicants referred to hiring managers and simultaneously explore other recruitment best practices.

How did SME-QA help State try out new hiring best practices? To answer this question, we spoke to Kristen Fulcher, the HR Specialist in the Bureau of Global Talent Management’s Office of Civil Service Talent Management who managed the SME-QA pilots. We also spoke to Katy Parkin, Hiring Manager for the Diplomatic Security Service’s Office of Intelligence and Threat Analysis, who participated in the pilot.

Widely Sharing the SME-QA Certificate

State applied the SME-QA process as a pilot for two different recruitment actions, one for GS-12 Grant Management Specialists and the other for GS-13 Foreign Affairs Officers, both in permanent competitive announcements. Hiring for both roles included SME workshops to determine the assessment criteria with HR as well as resume reviews and phone interviews conducted by SMEs to help the Department identify qualified candidates. From there, State was able to develop groups of pre-vetted, qualified candidates available for immediate selection by any office for up to 240 days, also known as shared certificates. While both announcements were successful, the second SME-QA action for Foreign Affairs Officers exceeded everyone’s expectations.

State ended up widely sharing these SME-QA certificates with more than 70 hiring managers like Katy across the State Department while the certificates were available. After sharing the certificates, State ultimately hired 73 new employees from this one hiring action.

What did this mean for Katy and her team? Thanks to this streamlined process, they were able to spend their time and energy on selecting the right candidates from applicants on the shared certificate. “The provision of a ready-made certificate of eligible candidates allowed me as the hiring manager to focus exclusively on the selection and placement of qualified individuals rather than on the overall advertisement process,” Katy explained.

What was the outcome? The pilot allowed Katy and others like her at State to have access to a full pool of highly qualified candidates from a wide variety of backgrounds and work experiences.

Applying Lessons Learned

What lessons came out of this pilot? Looking forward, State recognized the mutual benefit of shared certificates across the Department and is establishing a new centralized shared certificate team. They also modified their internal policy to allow all certificates to remain available for sharing for a full 240 days instead of the 60 days that was previously allowed. The team will post announcements for high volume vacancies on a regular basis and share the resulting certificates with hiring managers Department-wide. Ultimately, the goal is for hiring managers to seek out candidates from these Department-wide shared certificates first before posting a brand new announcement for a similar vacancy.

For hiring managers like Katy, adopting practices like hiring from shared certificates will increase recruitment efficiency and more readily provide them with top talent. “I whole-heartedly recommend the continued implementation of the [shared certificate] hiring process and would strongly encourage other offices to participate,” Katy said.

Learn More

To learn more about the SME-QA hiring process and its impact on hiring across government, visit the U.S. Digital Service and keep an eye on Performance.gov for more features on hiring, strengthening, and empowering the federal workforce.