Federal Government Hiring Playbook
A guide for technologists to find meaningful work in the public sector
Table of Contents
About this playbook
Welcome! This playbook is for technologists working in the private sector, who are driven by their values and see an opportunity to leverage their skills and expertise to improve the way that government works for people. Given the scale of the United States government, the opportunity for impact is massive.
In the federal government there is no shortage of challenges to solve or opportunities to serve. This is true whether you are looking for a long-term career change, a temporary leave of absence from your current job, or something in between. But the federal hiring process can be quite cumbersome, and it’s not always easy to find the right opportunity, especially for someone coming from the private sector.
The Tech Talent Project created this playbook to help technologists like you, who are considering public service, understand your options and navigate the government hiring information, processes and requirements. We’ve organized this playbook by relevant questions that will likely come up throughout your process. We are framing this document for technologists and have drawn directly from the organizations, people and documents who have spent years helping explain to broad audiences how to enter government.
It can be helpful to think of federal positions in two categories:
Career civil service positions (including executive level and appointed roles)
While we discuss executive-level opportunities and career opportunities in the career civil service paths section, the majority of government technical roles are civil service or digital service in the tour-of-duty paths section.
Don’t read this guide all in one sitting. Instead, refer to relevant sections as you move through the hiring process. Depending on the opportunities you’re interested in, not all sections may be relevant.
A quick note on word choice: we use the words “serve” and “service” throughout this playbook to convey to readers that working with the federal government is primarily about offering your skills and time to help others, in this case to support people living in the United States.
Why work in Government?
“There is so much room right now for technologists in government — to help modernize our infrastructure, to help (government) think in more sophisticated ways about how technology lives in our society — and you shouldn’t pass up that opportunity.”
— Nicole Wong
former deputy chief technology officer, United States of America
You can help transform the way the federal government serves people living in the United States. This could mean addressing how the government delivers essential services — such as unemployment benefits and healthcare — or how it solves complex challenges, such as supporting the clean energy transition and fighting racial and gender discrimination. Whether you’re just graduating with a computer science degree or you have 20 years of experience as a tech executive, your skills have the power to transform — and the need has never been more urgent.
As you read tactical descriptions and suggestions for applying to technical roles within government, please note that the title of the job and the category of the role aren’t as important as the work you can do, the impact you can make and the people with whom you can make it. Critical technical leadership roles exist across government agencies, and sometimes making the biggest difference possible means bringing your expertise to a team that can’t offer you the exact title or position you have imagined. What they can offer you is a chance to bring your skills to some of the most important problems of our time. If you get that chance, we hope you take it.
How can service fit into my life?
The federal government is the largest employer in the U.S., employing over 79,000 technologists, according to the Partnership for Public Service’s Go Government website. Opportunities to serve range from time-limited tour-of-duty opportunities (as a member of the Technology Transformation Service [TTS] or a technologist on loan from an academic institution) to longer-term career positions in the civil service, including executive-level positions. Which path you pursue depends on both your personal vision and a variety of practical matters including how much time you have available, where you are open to living, and what opportunities are available when you are ready.
While federal roles often don’t pay as much as the private sector, they provide an incredible opportunity for professional growth and the chance to work on service delivery and innovation challenges impacting millions of people living in the United States. If you are moving into government service as a career change, part of the goal is to break in.
The key is to apply for several roles, be flexible, and not tie yourself to one job title or level. There are people in the federal government who have spent 30 years working to understand a population and make a difference for them, and you are coming in today. That’s amazing. You will bring different perspectives. But your success in a role will not initially be about title or job description or level — it will be about your ability to be curious, adapt, and respect those who have been working in tough systems for years.
What should I consider when selecting a path?
How much time can I devote to service?
There are two categories for federal positions: tour-of-duty and career civil service positions.
Tour-of-duty positions have a set length of service ranging from six months to a few years. Certain tour-of-duty positions may also allow you to take a leave of absence to work for the government for a set period of time. Through these opportunities, you often get to work on a team focused on specific issues or problem sets. You can do this in a leadership role or as an individual contributor. Tour-of-duty options for technologists include the United States Digital Service, 18F and Presidential Innovation Fellows, among others.
Career civil service positions bring technologists into government using a traditional government hiring process, and employees are compensated using the GS scale. Opportunities range from entry-level roles to senior leadership roles, including executive positions, such as Senior Executive Service (SES).
While not a section in this playbook, we want to acknowledge that there are additional senior-level roles, such as appointed roles. These roles are identified by a presidential administration in which candidates are directly chosen by that administration. Vetting and hiring for these positions happens through the Office of Presidential Personnel. Anecdotally, the average tenure of a political appointee is 18 to 36 months, and there tends to be significant turnover at the end of a presidential term or when the administration changes hands. More information on these roles and how to be considered for one can be found on the Partnership for Public Service website Ready to Serve.
Do I want to work full-time or part-time?
While many positions are full-time, certain paths, such as Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) assignments, may allow for part-time work on a case-by-case basis.
Am I willing to relocate?
Most paths and positions will require you to be based in Washington, D.C., or another specific location. Some opportunities may be remote but require in-office work. Few positions, and no leadership positions, are fully remote. The federal government does not cover relocation expenses.
How much will I get paid?
Compensation is determined based on a number of factors including position, location and prior experience. Learn more about compensation under the section “How is compensation determined?”
The next two sections provide more details on two main categories of positions for which you can actively apply: tour-of-duty and career civil service.
Options for serving in government: Tour-of-duty
The tour-of-duty path can provide you with a great opportunity to gain experience in government, while working on some of the most compelling issues we face. It’s also perfect if you’re feeling inspired to give back but wish to return to the private sector after a year or two.
Tour-of-duty paths have a set length of service ranging from six months to a few years. Certain roles may allow you to keep a current job and take a leave to join a government agency for a period of time.
The following are examples of tour-of-duty opportunities:
U.S Digital Corps
(Information below is drawn directly or paraphrased from the U.S.Digital Corps website.)
What U.S. Digital Corps is:
The U.S Digital Corps is a two year fellowship for early‑career technologists who work to create important impacts in areas such as pandemic response, economic recovery, cybersecurity, and racial equity.
Launched by the Biden administration, the U.S. Digital Corps is a cross‑government fellowship opportunity operated by the GSA’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS).
Whom it’s for:
Skilled junior technologists with diverse identities, passionate about leveraging technology to improve public service delivery in the United States.
Notes on applying:
There are five tracks in the fellowship that a candidate can apply to: software engineering, data science and analytics, product management, design, and cybersecurity.
Federal resumes are not a requirement.
More information can be found in the U.S. Digital Corps website .
Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF)
(Information below is drawn directly or paraphrased from the PIF website.)
What PIF is:
Launched in 2012, and now part of the Technology Transformation Services, PIF participants serve as a government-to-government incubator. PIF hires 20 to 30 fellows each year, who work in a cohort, to explore problems, uncover insights and create solutions to modernize government. They seek out technologists, designers and strategists. Their approach includes workshopping, designing sprints, user-testing and rapid prototyping to deliver results in the shortest possible time frame.
The program lasts for 12 months and draws from people of diverse backgrounds to build a multidisciplinary team offering industry expertise and entrepreneurial perspectives.
These teams partner with senior government leaders across 37 agencies to foster innovation through projects (submitted by agencies themselves) centered around data science, design, engineering, product and systems thinking. The program typically requires being in Washington, D.C.
Whom it’s for:
Mid- to senior-career technologists, designers, entrepreneurs and strategists.
Notes on applying:
Applications are available in the spring. You can learn more about their application process on the PIF website.
Presidential Management Fellows (PMF)
(Information below is drawn directly or paraphrased from the PMF website.)
What PMF is:
A two-year entry-level leadership development program for advanced degree candidates, administered by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The PMF program does not exclusively focus on tech, but has a STEM track that provides opportunities for technologists.
Whom it’s for:
People who are about to graduate with an advanced degree or who have received an advanced degree within the last two years.
Notes on applying:
Applications open once a year. Additional information on the process, requirements and timeline can be found here.
(Information below is drawn directly or paraphrased from the 18F website.)
What 18F is:
A technology and design consultancy inside the federal government. This office exists within Technology Transformation Services (TTS). 18F partners with 39 federal and state agencies to “fix technical problems, build products and improve how the government serves the public through technology.” 18F is composed of approximately 120 designers, software engineers, strategists and product managers.
The program offers two-year terms that can be renewed once for a total of four years. 18F is a remote-first team with offices in Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco and Chicago.
Who it’s for:
Software engineers, strategists and project managers.
Notes on applying:
Open roles and details about their application process are on the 18F website. All 18F roles require a government-style resume.
You can read what past 18F members have said about their experiences, which highlight the rewards of tackling complex problems, the joy of being a part of a cohort, and their shared motivation to improve the public’s experience with government.
U.S. Digital Service (USDS)
(Information below is drawn directly or paraphrased from the USDS website.)
What USDS is:
A White House technology unit that provides consultation services to federal agencies regarding building, supporting and effectively using digital services. When it was founded in 2014, the initial priorities were modernizing immigration, veterans’ benefits and Healthcare.gov.
The USDS has over 200 employees and draws from industry, nonprofit and government technologists.
Whom it’s for:
Mid- to senior-level designers, engineers, product managers and bureaucracy specialists. USDS employees support a variety of projects across the federal government.
These specialists can join for six months to two-year terms. Terms can be renewed for a maximum of four years.
USDS has roles in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding metro areas. There have been some remote roles.
Notes on applying:
The USDS application can be found at Apply to USDS. They do not require a federal resume.
Department of Health and Human Services Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) Program
(Information below is drawn directly or paraphrased from the HHS website.)
What the Department of Health and Human Services EIR Program is:
An opportunity for talented private sector individuals to help drive innovation in medicine, health and social services in the Department of Health and Human Services.
EIR FAQ pages “recommend that Entrepreneurs-in-Residence relocate to the project site for the duration of the program.”
Whom it’s for:
Mid- to senior-level professionals with backgrounds in nonprofit leadership, academia, policymaking, entrepreneurship, business, technology and software design.
This program is 13 months.
Notes on applying:
Applications require a resume and response to a short-answer question, along with one round of interviews for the most qualified candidates.
Opportunities are posted online as projects are selected. You can sign up for the EIR mailing list to receive notifications when new opportunities are announced.
Intergovernmental Personnel Act Mobility Program (IPAs)
(Information below is drawn directly or paraphrased from the OPM’s IPA website.)
What an IPA is:
An opportunity for experts in a specific field or skill to bring that skill to the federal government for a limited period of time.
The Intergovernmental Personnel Act Mobility Program provides for the temporary assignment of personnel between the federal government and state and local governments, colleges and universities, Indigenous tribal governments, federally funded research and development centers, and other eligible organizations.
According to the Day One Talent Hub, “IPA assignments can be arranged at any time and may be intermittent, part-time, or full-time. IPA assignments can also be cost-neutral to federal agencies if funding can be provided by an employee’s organization or a third party.”
Whom it’s for:
Mid- to senior-level professionals with backgrounds in a specific policy area or field.
An IPA is for up to two years.
Notes on applying:
IPA assignments can be part time or full time.
These assignments are difficult to get unless you are familiar with the team in an agency or you go through a specific program. The Day One project has an IPA-based fellowship program. The Partnership for Public Service also has an IPA Talent Exchange Program.
Options for serving in government: Career civil service paths
The career civil service path is often for technologists looking to make a long-term pivot into the public sector. Others join simply because that’s where the most compelling opportunities are, even if they’re only thinking of their service as short-term.
The following are examples of career civil service path opportunities:
Standard roles within the information technology (IT) category, such as cybersecurity analyst and software engineer.
High-level roles with specialized requirements, such as Senior Executive Service (SES) positions or GS-15 positions. As an example, the chief technology officer of the Veterans Administration is an SES position.
All career civil service opportunities require applying through a competitive hiring process using USAJOBS, which we discuss more in the section “How do I use USAJOBS?”
Information Technology (IT) Positions (USAJOBS Category 2210)
(Information below is drawn directly from the USAJOBS Website)
What this path is:
The federal government categorizes different types of jobs with a number system, and refers to those categories as series. Series 2210 contains most information technology (IT) positions in the civil service. In addition, some agencies are starting to look at digital delivery teams, including data analysis and visualization, that may be in other number series such as 301 or 343.
Whom it’s for:
Any experienced tech professional.
This is a broad category of information technology specialists that includes but is not limited to the disciplines of software design, development, security and testing.
Notes on applying:
You can take a look at open opportunities in this series on USAJOBS.
Most are classified as Information Technology Management (Series 2210) on USAJOBS.
The roles and responsibilities will depend on the specific agency that is hiring for these positions. You can read more about agencies in the “Where can I serve?” section.
Recently, the federal government has experimented with recruiting and hiring by using subject matter experts to qualify groups of technical candidates so that they are prequalified for agencies. The Subject Matter Expert Qualifications Assessment (SMEQA) process strives to make the hiring process simpler and more effective.
Senior Executive Service (SES) Positions
(Information below is drawn directly or paraphrased from the OPM SES website.)
What SES is:
The SES is a corps of 7,000 high-level government administrators selected for their leadership qualifications. The role was created to curate a group of executive leaders who can be effective in any leadership position. These executives offer a wide range of perspectives pertaining to public service and strive to promote a “citizen-centered, result-oriented federal government” by serving as the link between political appointees and career civil servants.
Whom it’s for:
Executives seeking to make a big impact in the federal government.
The SES seeks leaders who have five core characteristics: experience with leading change, leading people, being results-driven, having business acumen and building coalitions. These five characteristics are referred to as the Executive Core Qualifications (ECQ) and are referenced throughout the application process, along with Technical Qualifications (TQs) that will vary depending on the specific role.
The SES consists primarily of career employees hired through a specific process. Up to 10 percent of positions may be filled by political appointees in “noncareer SES” roles. There is no set pattern for which technical leadership roles are considered Senior Executive Service.
Positions may include:
- Chief information officers (CIOs)
- Chief technical officers (CTOs)
- Chief data officer (CDOs) of major federal agencies
- Chief information security officer
- Deputy associate commissioner for systems operations and hardware engineering
- Executive director
- Information security policy and strategy positions.
Notes on applying:
More information on the application process can be found on the OPM Website and in the “What Should I Know About Applying for a Senior Executive Service” section of our playbook.
Scientific and Professional (ST) Positions and Senior Level (SL) Positions
(Information below is drawn directly or paraphrased from the OPM’s SL and ST web pages)
What ST and SL positions are:
Scientific and Professional (ST) Positions and Senior Level (SL) positions are high-level federal jobs that require engaging in broad and complex work like high-level research, or engineering. In most cases, these are nonexecutive positions with limited managerial and supervisory duties.
Whom it’s for:
ST and SL position applicants are expected to have a graduate degree, significant research experience, and a national or international reputation in their field.
Notes on applying:
ST and SL positions are posted to USAJOBS and go through a competitive hiring process, though qualified applicants can often be hired quicker than usual due to the high degree of specialization required.
Where can I serve?
Whichever “path” you follow or role you apply for, the experience will differ depending on the agency and the team you work with.
There are various agencies in the federal government with distinct missions and workplace cultures where you can make an impact. To better understand what working at each agency is like, you can refer to the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report. This report ranks federal agencies by their employee engagement score, calculated by the Partnership for Public Service and the Boston Consulting Group.
In addition, we’ve included some information on the next pages to help get you started in your search for the right position at the right agency. This is not a complete list of all of the agencies. You will want to do your own research and ask questions based on your interests and expertise.
The following agencies represent a sample of missions and technology challenges. Unless specifically noted, much of the content was drawn directly from Tech Talent’s Memos for a Tech Transition and Tech Talent and Partnership for Public Service’s Tech Talent for 21st Century Government written in 2020.
Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
From Tech Talent for 21st Century Government (p. 33)
HHS impacts every family across the United States. They oversee healthcare providers, insurance, pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, and health and life sciences research.
The 11 operating divisions within HHS include the Administration for Children and Families, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health and, by far the largest component, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)
From Tech Talent for 21st Century Government (p. 35)
The Department of Veterans Affairs cares for our nation’s approximately 20 million veterans and their families. It is the second largest federal agency with almost 360,000 full-time employees and a budget of more than $200 billion.
The VA provides many essential services, including health care, disability payments, housing support, education and access to national cemeteries for veterans. They do this through three divisions: Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration and National Cemetery Administration. Despite the importance of its mission, VA programs run on software that lags far behind private-sector equivalents.
Some VA systems are almost five decades old, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Department of Energy (DOE)
From Tech Talent for 21st Century Government (p. 37)
The Department of Energy is a science and technology agency with a mission to ensure America’s safety through energy, environmental and nuclear policy. It oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile and nuclear energy policy.
The department also manages 17 national laboratories, which conduct cutting-edge scientific and technology-related research to achieve DOE’s mission. For close to eight decades the national laboratories have contributed to innovations ranging from nuclear energy to LED lighting, and have participated in activities ranging from sequencing the human genome to exploring Mars.
In addition, DOE plays an important role in the research, development and deployment of energy technologies needed to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy. These include solar and wind energy, energy efficient buildings, electric vehicles, advanced nuclear power, carbon capture and sequestration, and new, energy-efficient manufacturing processes. DOE also recognizes that its mission is “enabled, advanced and reliant on [internal] information and information systems that must be effectively managed to ensure mission success.”
Department of Transportation (DOT)
From Tech Talent for 21st Century Government (p. 40)
The Department of Transportation plans and coordinates federal transportation projects. DOT sets safety regulations for all major modes of transportation, including emerging new technologies such as hyperloops, autonomous driving vehicles and drones.
The agency serves as something akin to a holding company, with the Office of the Secretary establishing policy and overseeing 10 administrations, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Highway Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, Federal Transit Administration and Maritime Administration. The Office of the Chief Information Officer within the department was created in 2016 and oversees the entire department’s information technology portfolio.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
From Tech Talent for 21st Century Government (p. 42)
The Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003 in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The agency brings together functions such as emergency management, counterterrorism, cybersecurity and immigration from across the federal government. DHS is the third largest federal department after the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. It has one of the most wide-ranging sets of missions and functions among all agencies.
DHS operating and support agencies include U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Secret Service, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Science and Technology Directorate and Office of Intelligence and Analysis.
In addition to its own work, DHS is responsible for the information security of the entire civilian federal government, including providing mandated security services to other agencies and handling incident response.
Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)
From Memos for a Tech Transition (page 19)
The Office of Science and Technology Policy was established in 1976 to advise the president on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs. As such, it plays a critical role in ensuring that the president can leverage technology for better policymaking and service delivery across the federal government. Deep, strategic tech expertise among the president’s closest advisors can help the president and Cabinet members identify when they need to ask a science or technology question, what questions to ask, and of whom.
For example, OSTP experts are uniquely positioned to engage world-class experts and to coordinate the massive task of sharing data — with appropriate privacy protections — across hospitals and public health departments, other relevant federal agencies and the public, so that people living in the United States can be safer and healthier as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
From Memos for a Tech Transition (page 24)
Established in 1970, the Office of Management and Budget plays a leading role in ensuring that the president’s campaign promises are translated into meaningful action across the federal government. The president’s budget, president’s management agenda and agency strategic plans with specific performance goals, released within the first year, reflect these commitments and actions that OMB and agencies work to achieve. Implementing these promises relies on modern information technology, which functions as the backbone of how the government serves the public in the digital age.
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how IT systems across all levels of government are not well equipped to handle normal workloads, much less the massive increased burdens that stress them during a crisis. For example, technical failures in the Small Business Administration’s E-Tran system made it difficult to get $350 billion in much-needed assistance to small-business owners in a timely fashion. State unemployment insurance systems are antiquated and likewise unable to handle today’s massive increase in unemployment, leaving hardworking communities and individuals without timely assistance for them and their families.
IT implementation failures can also hinder major policy priorities outside crisis management and, by law, OMB plays an important role in overseeing federal agencies’ IT management. For example, limited OMB oversight of HealthCare.gov contributed to failures that threatened to unravel former President Obama’s signature policy priority.
U.S. Department of the Treasury
From Memos for a Tech Transition (page 45)
Founded in 1789, the U.S. Department of the Treasury is responsible for administering policies and delivering services that touch every American, no matter who they are or where they live.
As one of the federal government’s most public-facing agencies, the Treasury consists of several bureaus, including the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Mint, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, the Bureau of the Fiscal Service, and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the vital role technology plays in delivering these services, but even before the pandemic, outdated technology at the IRS caused high-profile failures, including an 11-hour outage on Tax Day 2018. The IRS has had to reprogram hundreds of IT systems to administer the Affordable Care Act of 2010, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, and the Taxpayer First Act of 2019.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
From Memos for a Tech Transition (page 56)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture was formed in 1862 and oversees federal laws responsible for farming, forestry, rural economic development, and food. It consists of several bureaus, such as the Office of Rural Development, the Food and Nutrition Service, the United States Forest Service, the Farm Service Agency, and Food Safety and Inspection Service, among others.
Every month, more than 35 million people rely on the USDA for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and that number grew by more than 6 million in the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic. With levels of household food insecurity nearly doubling in 2020, modern technology is necessary to get nutrition assistance to people living in the United States who need assistance putting food on the table.
Many of USDA’s highly used, public-facing programs, such as SNAP, are underpinned by a patchwork of old and complex technical systems across every state, territory, county and thousands of localities. When these systems fail, it can devastate millions of people.
Department of Education (ED)
From Memos for a Tech Transition (page 60)
The Department of Education was formed in 1979. Its responsibilities include establishing policies related to federal education funding, collecting data and overseeing research on America’s schools, and enforcing laws prohibiting discrimination in programs that receive federal funds.
Millions of students rely on ED, either for applying for and receiving student loans or for funding provided to their school system. These objectives cannot be reached without effective technology and data systems. ED relies on an almost five-decades-old system to process more than 21 million student loan applications annually. This system is currently being completely overhauled. Each milestone of the project creates a risk point that could lead to disruption of financial aid services. Effective technology is fundamental to supporting students.
How is compensation determined?
For tour-of-duty and career path opportunities, compensation is determined using the General Schedule, also known as the GS Scale. This classification and pay system covers the majority of civilian federal employees.
More about the GS Scale can be found below.
More about the GS Scale:
(The following information was taken directly from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) website)
The GS Scale has 15 grades — GS-1 (lowest paying) to GS-15 (highest paying) — and 10 levels within each grade called “steps.” Agencies establish the grade of each job based on its difficulty, responsibilities and qualifications, which increase as the scale rises. Most tour-of-duty and career positions will be paid according to the GS Scale. The most up-to-date pay scale for each grade and step can be found on the OPM website.
A note on compensation for Senior Executive Service (SES), Senior Level (SL), and Scientific and Professional (ST) roles:
These positions use a pay-for-performance compensation model and have some salaries higher than the GS Scale. The minimum and maximum salaries can be found on OPM’s website. The SES is paid in a broad range with the floor being lower than most steps in the GS-15 range.
How can I find opportunities?
Tour of duty
Most tour-of-duty paths advertise openings themselves. You can find out more information about each in the tour-of-duty section.
USAJOBS is the official website for federal government jobs where you’ll find nearly all job opening announcements. These step-by-step instructions and more information from the Partnership for Public Service will help you navigate the site and start searching for relevant roles.
How do I use USAJOBS?
Step 1: Create an account
According to the Partnership for Public Service, to gain full access to USAJOBS, you’ll need to create an account, which allows you to:
Save and automate job searches: Generate searches based on your preferences (for example, location, schedule or amount of travel); receive the results in an automated email; and store up to 10 specific searches.
Create and upload multiple versions of your resume: Build and save a primary resume and create copies to tailor the information to specific positions.
Track the status of your applications: View your active applications and where each one is in the application process.
Step 2: Search for positions
You can refine search results by various criteria, including:
Agency: Read more about some government agencies to start to explore your options.
Hiring Path: You can filter your job search results by hiring path to only show jobs you may be eligible for.
Pay: You can filter your search results by salary or pay grade.
Work schedule and work type: Search for full-time and permanent positions or short-term or temporary assignments.
Location: You can also filter jobs that offer the opportunity for remote work, also known as telework.
With an account, you can save search criteria and sign up to receive email alerts when a new job is posted that meets your criteria. You can save up to 10 different sets of criteria and update them at any time.
Step 3: Read Job Announcements
If you find a job you’re interested in, read the entire announcement to make sure you’re eligible and you meet the qualifications. For each job there are specific qualifications — your application must show how you meet them.
Notable sections in the job announcement:
Overview: Includes the application open and close date, pay scale and grade, appointment type (how long the job will last), service, salary and work schedule. Be sure to read the “This job is open to” section on the right-hand side for additional eligibility information.
Duties: Describes the job’s daily activities and responsibilities, any travel requirements, any managerial duties and promotion potential.
Requirements: Describes the type of required experience, certain conditions you need to agree to for the job, and how the hiring agency will evaluate your application.
Required documents: Lists all of the documents you may need to include with your application to prove you’re eligible and qualified for the job. It’s critical you submit the precise documentation as you may be disqualified if you’re missing information. You can see examples of documents you may need to submit on the “What types of documents might I need to provide?” page.
What do I need in order to apply?
Most tour-of-duty options have their own application and hiring process. You can find out more information about each in the tour-of-duty section.
USAJOBS applications for career path opportunities have five steps including:
- Select Resume
- Select Documents
- Review Package
- Include Personal Info
- Continue Application With Agency
More information about the application process can be found at USAJOBS – How to create an application.
Executive Level and SES Positions
The SES application and hiring process is different from the standard competitive service process. You can learn more in section 11 about SES positions.
How do I write a federal resume?
Preparing a resume for a job with the federal government is very different from preparing one for a private sector job. According to the Partnership for Public Service, a federal resume needs to be more detailed and will likely be five pages or more, because you are asked to go into greater depth about your skills, accomplishments and previous responsibilities.
Since the federal government processes many applicants, you should make it abundantly clear that you are qualified for each role you are applying for. Only a fraction of applicants will be invited to interview and only based on the connection between the job description and resume. Therefore, you should think of your federal resume as a written account of the accomplishments that you would want to highlight in an interview.
Keep in mind that often the first person reading your resume is an HR professional and will likely not have any experience in your area of expertise. They may not be familiar with the team that is looking to hire for this role nor what the work will entail, beyond what is written in the job description on USAJOBS. As a result, you must use the same terminology and phrasing to describe your qualifications that are used in the job description. You will likely need to update your resume for each application you submit to make sure the terminology is the same.
Your federal resume should include the following elements:
(The below information was drawn directly from Solutions for the Workplace)
Work History Stats: The information that you must include will be listed in the position description: dates of employment (month and year) and hours worked per week, and you may need to include the names of supervisors and contact information for all previous positions. (You can make a note about which of these people you would not like to be contacted as a part of your application process.)
Work Experience: You should include all work experience that is relevant to the particular position that you are submitting an application for. You should include outcomes where you can, not just duties. Include success metrics and the impact that your work had on the team, organization, community, etc. wherever possible —and relate it back to the job description.
Awards and Honors: Focus on recent and relevant awards and honors.
Professional Publications/Presentations: If you have many, list a representative sample and add a statement that a complete list is available.
Certifications/Licenses: Please list any certifications or licenses, like Agile/Scrum certifications or security certifications.
Education: Should be in reverse chronological order.
For technologists and folks from the private sector, this can often feel like writing a resume in the exact opposite way to what you have been taught. It can feel like writing:
A very long bulleted list of everything you’ve ever done, every award you’ve ever won, every course/certificate you’ve ever earned.
Many, many pages.
Direct language from the job posting in your resume and directly relating it to your qualifications and experience.
An explanation of your qualifications for each option one by one.
An explanation of your qualifications for each specialization one by one.
Direct words from major duties and your experience performing the major duties in previous jobs.
Tips for writing a federal resume
Read the announcement closely and follow the instructions. Different job announcements may require different information and formatting. You can be disqualified for not following instructions.
Focus on your experience in the last 10 years.
Write in the first person — current experience should use present tense and earlier experience, past tense.
Use examples of completed projects and metrics to support your work whenever possible. For example, list the number of people you managed on a team, or how many people are using the product that you produced.
If you have a previous job where only some of your duties are relevant, you can still include it and indicate how many hours per week you did work that is relevant to this particular position.
Have someone read your resume who does not work in your industry and ask them to note where they have questions about what you did and accomplished.
How to write a government resume by 18F. This is specifically speaking to technologists writing resumes for government.
USAJOBS – What should I include in my federal resume?: Notes several details your resume must include along with general best practices.
USAJOBS – How to build a resume: Walkthrough of how to upload your resume to USAJOBS and use the Resume Builder tool.
Partnership for Public Service – Writing your federal resume: Guide on what to include in your resume when using the USAJOBS Resume Builder tool.
Partnership for Public Service – Building your federal resume: Guide on what to include in your resume when uploading to USAJOBS.
Will I need a security clearance?
All federal jobs require a background investigation. In addition, positions that include access to sensitive information will require a security clearance. Read the “Background and Security Clearance” section of the job announcement to see what security level is required. This section gives an overview of the background investigation process, followed by information on the types of security clearances, the assessment process and tips.
A completed background investigation and/or security clearance is not needed to apply. If the agency wishes to hire you, you will receive a job offer contingent upon successful completion of the background investigation and/or obtaining a security clearance. After a job offer has been accepted and the required background check and security clearance forms have been submitted, according to Go Government, it can take up to a year to complete the process depending on the backlog, the need for additional information and the depth of the investigation.
In exceptional circumstances, the hiring office may request an “Interim Determination,” which allows you to start working before completing the background check and/or security clearance process. The determination is made after review of a complete security package and after certain investigative checks such as a credit check or criminal history review come back with favorable results. A denied Interim Determination does not negatively impact your final eligibility for a security clearance.
(Information below is drawn directly or paraphrased from the Partnership for Public Service’s Ready to Serve website and the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol website)
A background investigation will be conducted to ensure that you are reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character, and loyal to the United States.
The depth of the background investigation depends on the position. Federal jobs are designated as low-risk, medium-risk or high-risk, depending on the potential impact that an individual could have on the agency’s mission. For example, high-risk positions include those involved in working with federal information systems or overseeing large amounts of government funding.
Regardless of the level of background check, you will have your fingerprints taken, you will need to answer questions regarding past residences, employment, education, and any military history or police records.
(Information below is drawn directly or paraphrased from the Partnership for Public Service’s Ready to Serve website)
The security clearance process assesses an individual’s trustworthiness and reliability before granting them access to national security information. The level of security clearance depends on the type of access to classified information and secure facilities needed to perform the job.
Agencies that may require a security clearance:
Intelligence community (for example, Central Intelligence Agency or National Security Agency)
Federal law enforcement agencies (for example, Federal Bureau of Investigation or Drug Enforcement Agency)
Diplomatic agencies (for example, State Department or United States Agency for International Development)
Levels of Security Clearances
(Information below is drawn directly from the Partnership for Public Service’s Go Government website)
The three levels of security clearance are:
Provides access to information that may cause damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.
Requires a reinvestigation every 15 years.
Provides access to information that may cause serious damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.
Requires a reinvestigation every 10 years.
3. Top Secret
Provides access to information that may cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.
Requires a reinvestigation every six years.
The security clearances are hierarchical, meaning that receiving a clearance at one level allows you to access information at all lower levels as well. The process takes longer as the level of security clearance rises.
(Information below is drawn from Code of Federal Regulations 2012, Part 147- Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility for Access to Classified Information)
The security clearance assessment process considers factors that could cause conflicts of interest and place individuals in a position of having to choose between commitment to the United States and another loyalty.
The government uses 13 guidelines for making individual assessments on whether to grant clearance:
Allegiance to the United States
Foreign influence and foreign preference
Alcohol consumption and drug use
Security vulnerabilities, outside activities and misuse of information technology systems.
As part of the process, you will be asked to list all foreign activities and contacts, because the concern is dual loyalty or potential for coercion by a foreign entity.
Foreign activities include foreign financial interests, such as ownership interests in a foreign business or foreign bank accounts. Foreign contacts are considered to be foreign nationals with whom you or a spouse/partner have had “close and/or continuing contact with,” in the last seven years and are bound by affection, influence, common interests and/or obligation.
The security clearance process evaluates the whole person, weighing a number of variables. Mitigating factors are considered, such as whether the candidate voluntarily reported the information, sought assistance and followed professional guidance, or demonstrated positive changes in behavior. A security clearance will likely be denied if the information available shows a recent or recurring pattern of questionable judgment, irresponsibility or emotionally unstable behavior.
Please note that a mental health diagnosis, treatment and counseling is not a reason to deny or revoke a security clearance. In fact, the application forms now specifically state: “seeking or receiving mental health care for personal wellness and recovery may contribute favorably to decisions about your eligibility.”
The next section shares more about important things to remember when filling out a federal application.
Important things to remember when filling out a federal application
(Information below is drawn directly or paraphrased from the Partnership for Public Service Ready to Serve website)
Gather relevant information early to turn around forms quickly
Applicants are usually given 24 to 72 hours to complete and submit a form online. Before you are asked to submit the information, review the Questionnaire for National Security Positions (SF-86) form or the Questionnaire for Public Trust Positions (SF-85-P) as applicable to the position and begin to gather the information you need. Review this checklist of items you will need in the Guide for Standard Form SF-86.
Be honest and forthcoming
You must answer all questions on the clearance application form truthfully and completely. When reviewing any issues involving misconduct, investigators consider passage of time and other factors. You will have the opportunity to explain your answers during the clearance investigation.
Do not submit incomplete or inaccurate information
While it is possible to amend your submissions after the fact, doing so may cause concern as to why the information was not reported correctly in the first place. Further, every amendment or resubmission may delay the overall process and your clearance.
Anticipate a longer process if you have engaged in extensive activities abroad
Having international experience, foreign contacts or financial holdings is not a negative for you as an applicant. However, there could be increased scrutiny because of these activities and any personal connections as they relate directly to the topic of national security.
What should I know about applying for a Senior Executive Service (SES) position?
(Information below is drawn from professional resume writer and federal hiring consultant Nancy Segal as well as the Office of Personnel Management website)
Senior Executive Service (SES) members are high-level executives who work with presidential appointees as well as the rest of the federal workforce. They may manage, supervise and aid in policy-making.
Throughout the application process, you’ll see references to Executive Core Qualifications (ECQ) and Technical Qualifications (TQs), which are outlined in the “Options for serving in government: Career civil service ses-positionspaths” section of this playbook.
What’s the compensation?
SES positions use a pay-for-performance compensation model and have salaries that can be higher than the General Schedule Scale. The minimum and maximum salaries can be found on OPM’s website. This does not mean that a given SES role is more critical or impactful than a given GS-15 role.
What’s the application process?
You will apply through the specific hiring process using USAJOBS for most SES positions. Ten percent of the SES may be political appointees, or “noncareer SES.” This determination is out of the applicant’s control. OPM estimates that applicants will spend between 40 to 80 hours preparing their application materials for an SES position.
SES Federal Resume
Preparing a resume for a federal job is quite different than preparing one for a private-sector job. For private sector jobs, you typically summarize your work history in one to two pages. A SES federal resume will typically be five pages long and is required to include detail about your skills, accomplishments and previous responsibilities.
An SES federal resume should include the following elements:
Executive Experience and Achievements: Achievements should include outcomes and metrics, not just duties. Include specific details such as dates of employment (month and year), hours worked per week, the name of supervisors and contact information for all previous positions. You can also note if there are specific people who you do not want to be contacted as a part of your application process.
Leadership Development: Include relevant courses and training, particularly as they relate to the TQs.
Awards and Honors: Focus on recent and relevant awards and honors, preferably from the last 10 years, unless especially relevant.
Professional Publications/Presentations: If you have many, list a representative sample and add a statement that a complete list is available.
Certifications/Licenses: List any certificates on licenses that you have received.
Education: Should be listed in reverse chronological order.
There are five ECQs required for all SES jobs. These are designed to assess executive experience and potential. In many cases, you will need to write an essay for each of the five ECQs that tells a specific story or stories that emphasize your executive experience. Hiring assessments for SES positions are centered on how well applicants demonstrate the ECQs in the essays. The five ECQs are:
Most of the time, ECQs are evaluated based on one essay per ECQ. These essays should focus on your leadership experience instead of technical expertise. You might find it helpful to follow a template like the Challenge-Context-Actions-Results (CCAR) method to talk about your expertise in a compelling way. Within these five ECQs, there are several competencies that you can use to guide your writing for each of the five essays, including qualities such as creativity and innovation and accountability.
According to federal talent specialists, the ECQ format is typically fairly specific. For example, provide two examples per ECQ and don’t go back further than 10 years. Each example should be one page, single spaced.
Also, whenever possible, do not use an acronym unless it really is a widely known acronym. The people reviewing your ECQs may not be at the agency or in the same technical field as you are, so they won’t be familiar with certain terms. Additionally, you can use one example that is not work-related (for example, you may want to reference a strong volunteer leadership role).
You can read more about the ECQs and see the full list of competencies within the ECQs on the OPM website.
TQs are specific to the job in question and have no official format. They will vary by agency and job announcement. In your application, you must be able to provide specific examples of when you demonstrated each TQ in your work.
Use at least two specific examples for each TQ. You may repeat examples that you use in your ECQs, but be sure to frame them differently. ECQs are focused on your leadership, while your TQs are focused on technical knowledge and expertise.
Agencies assess candidates for SES positions using one of three different assessment methods:
Narrative Executive Core Qualification (ECQ) Method
Accomplishment Record Method
Narrative ECQ Method
Also known as the “Traditional Method,” this requires applicants to submit a resume and a narrative statement addressing the Executive Core Qualification (ECQs) and any Technical Qualifications (TQs) required for the position. The statement, which addresses all five ECQs, is limited to a maximum of five to 10 pages based on agency preference.
Accomplishment Record Method
Applicants submit a resume and narratives addressing selected competencies underlying the ECQs along with any required TQs. This allows candidates to create narratives targeted at relevant skills rather than all ECQs. Agencies typically select five competencies, one from each ECQ, that applicants must address. Responses are typically limited to one page per competency.
The resume-based method requires applicants to submit only a resume, which must show possession of ECQs and any required TQs. Resumes are generally limited to five pages, including an optional cover letter. This method was designed to streamline the application process for high-level positions requiring sophisticated leadership skills or positions with rare TQs that will likely limit the number of applicants. Tips on preparing your SES resume for this method can be found on the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer Website.
Before being hired, SES applications are subject to final review and certification by the Qualifications Review Board (QRB). The QRB is made up of three SES members from different federal agencies.
The QRB board specifically evaluates the applicant’s ECQs and may approve or reject the application. This independent and objective review is intended to ensure that the government is hiring executives with the qualifications needed in today’s environment. The board evaluates the candidate’s ability to lead in times of ongoing change. The board is also designed to make sure that technical expertise does not outweigh leadership skill in the selection of new senior executives.
More information on QRB can be found on the Selection Process website.
Challenge-Context-Action-Result (CCAR) Model for ECQ and TQ Narratives: In this article, Nancy Segal outlines her model for how to write ECQ and TQ narratives.
USAJOBS – SES and ECQs: This page on USAJOBS outlines how to learn about SES job announcements and what you need in order to apply.
OPM SES selection process: This page on the OPM website has additional information about how agencies allocate and hire for SES positions.
The final word
Congratulations! You have completed the Federal Government Hiring Playbook. As a technologist searching for meaningful work in the public sector, you have countless opportunities, and we hope this playbook helped give you an idea of how you can best use your strengths.
The federal hiring application process can be cumbersome, and we are excited that you are dedicating your time and interest to working in the public sector.
The opportunities are vast and the need for technologists like you is urgent as this government continues to deliver essential services or solves complex challenges for people living in the United States.
Appendix A: Glossary of Terms
ECQ: Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs) are five qualities that many departments and agencies use to assess those who apply to Senior Executive Service positions. The five ECQs are: Leading Change, Leading People, Results Driven, Business Acumen, and Building Coalitions.
GS Scale: The GS Scale is used to classify work and compensation. The most up-to-date pay scale for each grade and step can be found on the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) website.
path: An established way for someone to serve in the federal government. Agencies have various paths set up to meet their staffing needs.
SES: Senior Executive Service role. SES members are high-level executives who work with presidential appointees as well as the federal workforce. They may manage, supervise and aid in policy.
SL: Senior Level role. SL employees generally do little or no supervising or managing, but they are responsible for broad and complex work that varies by department. There are approximately 640 SL positions allocated to several executive agencies.
ST: Scientific and professional role. ST employees generally conduct high-level research and development in a scientific field. There are approximately 470 ST positions allocated to several executive agencies.
Telework: Remote work.
TQs: Technical qualifications are special learned skills required to do a job. They are specific to whatever role the candidate is applying for.
USAJOBS: The federal government’s official employment site where you can find available career opportunities.
Appendix B: Resources
We are deeply grateful to the many nonprofit organizations and individuals who have developed online content to help Americans apply to serve in a government role. To make the path more clear to incoming technologists, we drew directly from the websites and documents of many of these organizations and individuals and included links to their websites.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM): OPM is the center of human resources for the federal government. With over 2 million employees in the federal government, applying for roles can feel like a complex process. OPM has created several sites and presentations to help translate the hiring process for potential federal employees. They also host an online site called USAJOBS.gov, where open roles are housed. We drew from many of OPM’s sites throughout this document.
The Partnership for Public Service: The Partnership has been building support systems for people who want to join the federal government for years. We drew largely from two of these support systems:
- Ready to Serve: an online handbook to help professionals understand how to be considered for a presidential appointment. The site highlights key steps in the appointment process and works to answer questions about each.
- GoGov.org: an online handbook to help professionals understand how to start a federal service career and apply for government civil service roles.
Tech Transformation Service Handbook: TTS “applies modern methodologies and technologies to improve the public’s experience with government by helping agencies make their services more accessible, efficient and effective.” They also have provided a solid resume guide and security clearance guide for technologists looking to join government. If you are curious, they also developed an excellent onboarding guide for a team member’s first 90 days and an acronym glossary that would be helpful to any technologist entering government.
Appendix C: Acknowledgements
We are grateful to the following individuals for their generous input and feedback on federal government hiring. We deeply appreciate their time and their advice. The contents of this report do not necessarily reflect the views of those with whom we engaged, and the views of participating federal officials do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the federal government or its agencies.
Senior Consultant, Chief Data Officer
The Americas Clobotics Wind Services
Former Executive Director of the Performance Improvement Council
Former Director, White House Leadership Development Program
Professional Resume Writer and Consultant
Solutions for the Workplace
Former Director, Department of Commerce
Former Chief Information Officer
Prince George’s County, Maryland