The Obama administration was heavily criticized when its federal job posting website, USAJOBS 3.0, crashed upon launch. After all, the administration is all about jobs, jobs, jobs. Rather than go "cloud-first" -- in theory, an administration mandate since 2009 -- the Office of Personnel Management, the government's human resources shop, decided to develop software "by government, for government."
The result? A monumental digital disaster. Hundreds of thousands of frustrated users. Millions in wasted taxpayer dollars.
So, when the Obama administration needed real, proven innovative skills -- in this particular case to address the very critical problem of veterans' unemployment -- it was not surprising to see Monday's announcement that it had finally turned to private sector professionals for the solution.
Using its "Joining Forces" banner, the administration, Google, and LinkedIn teamed to create a solution to push job information out to veterans via free jobs websites. It pairs with Department of Labor data to push even more information directly targeted to the people who need it most, unemployed veterans. It is called the Veterans Job Bank, which is currently in Beta test mode.
This followed the announcement by the Department of Veterans Affairs about its own new jobs portal called VA for Vets. Comparable to the Veterans Job Bank, this site will tailor job postings and other information to a specific audience: veterans looking for work with the VA.
Driven by its control-at-all-costs culture, OPM had to "own" the USAJOBS site and funnel federal job information through a single website. When this single point of failure spectacularly crashed upon launch, the brakes were effectively placed on all federal hiring -- at a time when unemployment still hovers above 9 percent.
Weeks later, USAJOBS.gov is still struggling for its digital life.
OPM continues to insist that USAJOBS must be under OPM management. Why? Because there is more than $90 million worth of taxpayer money held captive by this project. This is taxpayer money paid directly to OPM by other U.S. Government agencies -- it is simply too high, too tantalizing a number, to let slip away. Despite the assertion on the very day of the USAJOBS launch, OPM and Director John Berry did not "open the floodgates to innovation." What it did, instead, was expose its failure to grasp the simplest and most fundamental principle of disruptive technology: Free is the new business model.
The way and the degree to which job seekers own and control their own information is where OPM shows no level of competency. Users already find information on myriad sites. They're increasingly being informed by friends and others in their own social networks. And that information flows freely, is free, and effortlessly expands broadly the reach of its intended audience.
I have long advocated setting federal job information free -- actively encouraging federal agencies to use social networking sites and platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, along with a library of 1,600 .org and .edu sites, to push job information to as many consumers as quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.
As the Veterans Job Bank illustrates, it is critical that job information be digitally packaged for a precisely targeted consumer, an in-depth analysis based on that individual consumer's needs, habits, and online behavior patterns. Think of it as "job marketing." This is no different than any other form of marketing, but it certainly is more measurable, more tightly integrated with business goals today than at any time in history.
The world's best companies understand and use digital media as the most effective way to capture the attention of the potential employees who will most likely be successful in their enterprise. Those companies' reach is limited only by reach of the information ecosystem -- not by faulty software and data platforms. And the best part is -- it's free. "Free" is a word OPM clearly does not understand.
Organizations skilled at using new media get a very high ROF -- Return On Free. In times of economic crisis, the government needs to deliver services to citizens with the highest possible ROF. Turning your back on free is wasteful and shows no willingness to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars.
The Veterans Job Bank rides the private sector for its innovation and the digital media culture for its free delivery system -- providing smart, specific, and accessible information to the right audience at exactly the right time. USAJOBS, in contrast, saddles users with the responsibility of extracting the right information from a sea of data. It's everything we hate about institutional software. It forces consumers through a digital corn maze that relies on the user's labor to make it work. OPM and the USAJOBS team have created a platform so counterintuitive, so lacking in user engagement, that it has no answer but to blame the users themselves.
OPM actually still believes it's the job seeker's responsibility to make its system work. Listen to OPM spokesperson Kathy Dillaman's comments at the agency's recent press conference.
"FAQs, videos, tutorials ... people don't READ," Dillaman said with emphasis. "We had to determine with the user whether we had to educate, simplify, or fix [a problem].
"We assumed that people would know the answer to their security questions. It should have been an automated process where if you tried to sign on with your user ID, which did transport in, and you couldn't reestablish your password, you'd go into those security questions -- no human would have to intervene -- you'd answer them, you'd get your password, and you'd be in business. The number of people ... who couldn't do it ... was astounding to us. In the first few days we had 11,000 help desk tickets of people who just couldn't get this."
Her explanation for the backlog of user complaints was that the users themselves did not -- despite repeated postings by OPM -- remember their password or their three security questions correctly. Dillaman was actually surprised that users did not read the extensive FAQs that OPM posted. Had they, she assured the press, these problems would not have happened.
If this didn't involve the livelihood of so many millions of Americans, it would be simply laughable. But the cold slap in OPM's face is a harsh lesson learned from the thousands of negative comments posted on the USAJOBS Facebook wall. Not only is USAJOBS antiquated, it killing the government's ability to attract interest in -- much less recruit -- the best and the brightest to government service. As the USAJOBS ship slides into the inky darkness of digital has-beens, it is easy to see why jumping overboard is looking more and more like a damn fine idea. There is a saying born from corporate downsizing: The first rats off the ship are the best swimmers.
Congratulations to the Department of Veterans Affairs on being first.
Put in sitcom parlance, USAJOBS 3.0 has jumped the shark. But, of course, OPM can't go out of business ... can it?
Linda E. Brooks Rix is co-CEO of Avue Technologies. Founded in 1983, Avue Technologies has pioneered the technology of smaller, better government. The company provides the public sector with integrated technology and service solutions that dramatically increase enterprise-wide visibility and management effectiveness, workforce productivity, and manager and worker satisfaction. In the fight against "business-as-usual" in Washington, Avue helps power "business-as-unusual." Avue is a privately held company headquartered in Tacoma, Washington and with offices in Washington, D.C.