Interviewing: “Innovation’s Final Frontier”

Posted on July 23, 2019

same test

This guest blog is by an ELGL member who wishes to remain anonymous. ELGL posts anonymous blogs to provide forums for more sensitive local government topics that can provide perspective or insight when published, and when the author wishes to be frank about those topics.

I was nine or ten years old when I remember email suddenly being everywhere. Overnight it had become ubiquitous – Bryant Gumbel sitting in a chair in the era’s version of the living room, offering the equivalent of the News Feed-dominating post at that time: “What is Internet,” he said, “anyway?”

It was a moment when the world stopped at once to look at the elephant in the room that we all seemed to notice at once, and decided we were okay with opening ourselves to vulnerability by commenting on. Innovation grew from there, like the emergence of cell phones in Manhattan earlier that decade – one clear morning, suddenly salient in daily life.

Finding new approaches to government has been en vogue for decades. “Innovation” is a buzzword thrown around constantly, and commonly accepted as a positive development.

But it doesn’t always work in the public sector – and it does us a disservice to ignore the reality government and innovation don’t always go together.

The march of progress and technology has bypassed government office culture. Despite countless attempts at reinventing government under the civic-tech umbrella of Government 2.0, government isn’t as innovative or open to new ways of thinking as it often thinks, or likes to think, it is.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” my partner said recently when I told her I would be out late taking a written exam to qualify for an agency’s eligibility list – two hours by car from home thanks to traffic, starting after hours and running till late at night.

“You act as though government always makes sense” was the best I could do.

The red-tape reputation of the bureaucracy is hard to shake; what many see as unnecessary checklists of steps and the delays they create, it can be hard to accurately portray as the administrative consequence of environmental, equity, and public information considerations among other modern values.

Combine with other factors, and you get an environment where prospects for process improvement bear comparable promise of success to that ambitious civic initiative we all know will never see shovels hit the ground yet pursue anyway.

Many trees have fallen to capture on paper the analyses of the widening gap between smartphone-era technology and the legacy systems that run still too many of our public agencies.

When public sector employees sit down at their desks each morning, we all too commonly exchange the apps on our phones for the antiquated workplace equipment that’s always been around, there in the background, sitting in the corner through another day in the office.

Over the past few months, as a candidate for a number of government jobs, I’ve run into this phenomenon more times that I ever thought possible – and more than in any other industry I’ve worked in by far.

The interview process in this context has meant jumping through endlessly unnecessary hoops and counterproductive screening measures, and getting through frustrating and insulting experiences of minimal redeeming value.

Scheduling interviews where they don’t even bother to call you; walking into interview rooms to be informed I was sitting for another position than I’d prepared to interview for (agencies sometimes being repeat offenders in this category).

For several of these jobs, I received an email letting me know that my resume had been pulled from the proverbial pile, and that I was invited to the next step: taking a written exam.

Not online, but in person? Interesting. Ok, fine. Chance to shine, I’ll take it; whatever.

The day I went to take the agency’s eligibility test, I walked into the room and stood in a line of fellow candidates, flashing back to the not-dissimilar high school classroom where I took the SAT a lifetime before, the last time I was in a similar experience I could recall.

I signed in at the front table with my ID, and was handed by the test proctor (an alternately bored and faux-authoritarian municipal employee) a Scantron form, two number-2 pencils with pink eraser, and (just to complete the high school standardized-test imagery) a blue examination booklet – for the first time I could remember since long-ago undergrad, if not earlier.

I went to my characteristic spot in the next-to-last row of the room, and sat down at one of a number of parallel rows full of test-takers. We waited past the time the exam was to start, until finally the proctor read the testing company’s written instructions off the paper in front of him.

I took the test, leaving with five of the allotted 150 minutes to spare and limping home. Shortly thereafter, I was invited to take another exam and found myself driving to another agency – under similar circumstances to begin with.

Based on the instructions sent beforehand by email, I had the sinking suspicion that the tests would be quite similar. That suspicion grew as I approached the building, and upon walking in I was again handed a Scantron form, two number 2 pencils with pink erasers, and a blue exam booklet. The proctor opened her mouth to read the instructions, and I was hit with déjà vû:

Same rules and instructions, word-for-word: 2.5 hours, number 2 pencils, no calculators (side benefit of which: it gave me the chance to brush up on my long division, which I hadn’t had to do in a while)

Same blue testing book, manufactured by the same HR consulting firm. 

Same 100 questions, in what I could determine was the same order.

Same answer form.

“It was the same exact test!” I screamed into the phone. I was making my getaway, driving homeward following the exam. It was just shy of two and a half hours later.

I had taken two exams for two different positions, at two different agencies, in two different community settings hundreds of miles apart, administered by two different agency precedents, expectations, priorities, and office cultures.

And it wasn’t just the same test experience. It was the exact same test.

My childhood in many ways was not unique, in the sense it was defined by the ’90s and the memories it gave me; I still remember the day in elementary school when the teacher introduced the Scantron multiple-choice test system to our class of third graders – bored because it was just another piece of technology we had grown accustomed to the world bringing us, complacent because we didn’t like the teacher very much at all.

Had you told me that decades later I would walk into a meeting room to interview for a job and be told that 100-percent of my score would be based on a 100-question Scantron test, I don’t know that I would have believed you.

Had I known that not too long after that, I would drive several more hours just to take the same exam under the same conditions for a different job (in case you were wondering, controlled experiments are not cool), I don’t know whether I would have bothered to do it again a second time (sidenote: knowing the answers ahead of time was cool, once again though proving the test’s failure to yield intended value).

There was no reason that I needed to take that test twice.

The Common App should be a common, and more universal experience. Many of us still remember it, a single application used by and for admission to a number of universities large and small, with football teams and party scenes better or worse.

One would imagine that, after years of talking about reinventing government, agencies could have found a way to digitize and standardize this clearly crucial step in the hiring process.

Interviewing for government jobs shouldn’t be like walking up to a DMV teller – but we seem to commonly accept that it is. My experience in this arena is also not rare or unique, but I think it is illustrative.

I hope it points to where we can do better. That, after all, is the goal of everything we do – and in my opinion (albeit from a perspective borne of current experience), directs what not to do, directing us to challenges it is our generation’s place to solve.

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