article

12.10.08

My Uncle Rahm Suggested I Write

The Obama transition team's collection of 300,000 resumes online is touted as a symbol of change. So why do so few candidates have a shot?

You may be applying for a job in the Obama administration via Change.gov, but most people hired will get their jobs the old fashioned way: They know someone.

While widely touted as symbol of Barack Obama's commitment to transform government and Washington the transition team's massive resume-gathering operation is both methodologically unsuited to the task of filing government positions and clearly not the first-resort (or second-or third-resort, for that matter) recruitment tool that Obama's transition team is using.

The transition team's apparent lack of interest in pursuing the candidates who come to them online does have one bright side for would-be Obama hires: Their failure will remain personal.

A transition team spokesman confirms that about 50 people are in charge of vetting, sifting and sorting the more than 300,000 applications submitted through the website all vying for just under 3,000 jobs. This number, from the transition spokesman, is significantly less than the 7,000 previously reported, which is simply the potential number of appointees listed in the so-called " plum book."

Who these vetters are, what they're looking for and whether or not they've contacted anyone remains a mystery. An Obama spokesman refused to comment and could not confirm having seen anyone actually working at this task.

And it is an enormous task. The initial application for an Obama job asks for traditional resume-style material as well as information about what areas of the government the applicant is interested in. Spending just a couple of minutes on each screen of information would give the staff of 50 about a year's worth of 8 hour days. That’s hardly the way to "hit the ground running."

Not that anyone should be worried about the delay. For one thing, the transition team has outsourced the preliminary examination of applications submitted through Change.gov to Cluen, a private firm that specializes in (according to their website) "Resume Firewall" technology, a filtering process designed to "avoid all of the 'noise' out there," or, more plainly, "allows you to let in the quality candidates and keep out the ones you don't want." Cluen did not return calls seeking comment on the company's transition-team contract and, in turn, the Obama transition team declined to comment on what kinds of filtering processes transition leaders asked for.

Filtering and matching play an important part in any electronic resume-based hiring method. The vast majority of federal jobs the ones that applicants pursue through what's called the "competitive civil service" sector—use an even more lengthy and detailed application to match up applicants with specific jobs. One of the many problems with the Change.gov process is that it doesn't allow hopefuls to target specific jobs. Dennis Vamp, a consultant on civil sector government hiring, and the proprietor of federaljobs.net, was dismissive of the approach: "There's no target? To match everyone [job candidate with a job] generically is an impossibility."

The transition team's apparent lack of interest in pursuing the candidates who come to them online does have one bright side for would-be Obama hires: Their failure will remain personal. As a not-quite-public but definitely not-private entity, the transition team doesn't clearly fall under any clear regulatory mandate to disclose its procedures. As reported by The Politico earlier this week, the National Archives is certainly interested in the disclosure forms that applicants clearing the first hurdle must complete. But a transition spokesman would not confirm if anyone who applied online has even made it that far.

Online applicants I spoke to say that they expected their chances to be slim when they hit "submit." Among them, there is a lot of talk about "keeping fingers crossed" and "begging." A media professional with four years experience who applied for "anything" wrote, "I knew it was kind of a long shot… Or you could say that I have the youthful energy and can-do spirit that propelled the campaign."

This cheerful mood of resignation with what looks to be like a gigantic make-work project for the applicants—if not the transition team—is, perhaps, indicative of the cynicism with which young people view government, or, perhaps, success in general. To get a really good job in America, you've always had to know somebody. Obama's campaign took advantage of new media and social networks to make hundreds of thousands of people feel like they knew him, after all, and look at the job he got. Now if they could only make him get to know them.

P.S. The Obama candidacy and its transition have made significant concessions to advocates of open government, including putting all content on the Change.gov website under the freest license available in the "Creative Commons" copyright rubric. This doesn't—and shouldn't mean that the Obama organization should post full resumes online. There's something to be said, after all, for making the hiring process more transparent at the lower levels (I think Hillary Clinton would agree that it's plenty transparent at the higher ones). While Change.gov has undoubtedly received a chunk of unwanted resumes; knowing the criteria being used to define "unwanted" is in the public interest. Or, look at it the other way: Disgraced Department of Justice employee Monica Goodling used her own methodology to elevate Regents University graduates as fast-track hires, something that couldn't have happened if she had to make her reasoning public.

If you're one of the lucky ones who have been contacted by the Obama administration after submitting the 14-screen initial application: First, congratulations! Second, we'd love to hear your story! Please email me at askamc@gmail.com.

Ana Marie Cox is a Wonkette emerita, political junkie, self-hating journalist, and author of Dog Days. She has worked for Time, Mother Jones, Suck, and most recently, Radar. Follow her on Twitter.