Spending money to save money


Say you're a struggling Western freelance writer. In a quest for some dependable cash, you apply to work on trail crew for a summer with the Forest Service -- a great way to be in the mountains and make money. You call up the local USFS office and get assurance that yes, you're qualified, and they'd like to hire you, but you need to apply through the standardized application system.

You wade through a tedious online application process and wait to hear back. And wait. And wait. Summer approaches and you need work, so you get a coffee shop gig instead. A year later, you decide to apply once more for trail crew. After spending 30 minutes tracking down your password (a required eight characters with uppercase characters, a number, and a symbol), you log back in to the hiring site. Once there, you stumble upon a note attached to your old application informing you that, according to the computer system that sorts applications, you are deemed unqualified for trail crew -- even though folks on the ground were ready to hire you. You were never notified, though. Surprised and frustrated, you shrug. What can you expect? It's the government -- inefficient and nonsensical.

Except it isn't the government. The system that arbitrarily disqualified you, deeming you unsuited to remove deadfall and construct erosion barriers, belongs to a private contractor. Welcome to Avue.

Avue contracts with the government for a variety of digital services. In anticipation of budget cuts, they put out this announcement.
In the early 2000s, the U.S. Forest Service, caught up in the Bush-era mandates to centralize and outsource operations to save money, contracted with Avue to manage its hiring. This meant that applicants had to use Avue's system to apply, and those doing the hiring had to trust its automated screening to sort applicants into "qualified" and "unqualified."  The problem: A lot of the time, the system didn't work, say Forest Service employees.

These difficulties help explain why a big cheer went up late last year, ($34 million dollars later) when the agency decided not to renew its Avue Digital Services contract. "HALLELUJAH!!!!!" wrote a user on the online forum WildlandFire.com, hearing of the switch. "To be honest, if we were required to use a 1972 typewriter and mail the application on one of those Wells Fargo stagecoaches, that would be better than AVUE. Anything would be better than AVUE."

Yet the switch comes with its own set of costly hassles -- and questions about the value of government outsourcing meant to save money. While the Forest Service won't comment on the decision to switch to eRecruit, a service offered by an Australian company NGA.net, or on its dealings with Avue, employees within the agency currently aren't able to access any data from Avue, including thousands of job descriptions it needs to populate the new system. (Known as position descriptions, or PDs, these are key for matching applicants with jobs.) And not only are are Forest Service employees unable to access old data. If they have downloaded copies of position descriptions from Avue, they aren't allowed to use those either. An agency memo lays it out:

"In no event … can you use a PD (position description) from the Avue system, in whole or in part, to create a new or modified PD in the new eRecruit system." The Forest Service is also in ongoing negotiations with Avue about accessing that old data, but won't comment on that either.

Linda Rix, CEO of Avue Digital Services, says the focus on the missing position descriptions misses the point, though. She says eRecruit isn't able to do many of the complex tasks that Avue did, and that is partly why the transition has been difficult. "What eRecruit is doing for the Forest Service is about 40 percent of what we were doing for the Forest Service."

And despite the difficulties of using Avue, its complexity had a purpose, she adds. When the Forest Service contracted with Avue, says Rix, it was at pains to implement a system where "you can definitely show that you are not practicing discriminatory hiring." Avue's system does this, she says, because it "auto-calculates" matches based on specific job and legal criteria like the Fair Labor Standards Act, matching people -- regardless of race or gender -- based on the position needs and their own skill set. The new system, says Rix, lacks these capabilities.

Forest Service employees might argue that the auto-calculation was precisely what they wanted to get rid of. Avue's automated application screening process, according to a 2011 GAO report, "frequently result(ed) in situations where highly qualified candidates were wrongly eliminated from consideration or unqualified candidates were listed along with qualified candidates." Employees, particularly those in the wildfire program, complained about these baseless disqualifications as well as the overall difficulty of the application process.

Admittedly, it's not easy to be a giant federal agency, with thousands of applications for seasonal openings needing to be evaluated every year. Yet, by 2013, one would hope that the U.S. Forest Service would have figured it out. The Bureau of Land Management, NOAA and a number of other agencies use jobs giant Monster.com, but instead of joining that system, the Forest Service's jump to eRecruit is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's overall shift to a comprehensive human resources management program called "OneUSA," which aims to provide a simpler way for the whole Agriculture Department to hire qualified candidates.

We'll see. I'm just glad I'm not looking to join a trail crew this summer.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn was the online editor at High Country News. She recently moved to Washington, D.C. to work as a climate science reporter. Reach her on Twitter @spogburn.

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