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Near-Empty Panel Takes On Hiring Practices

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By Joe Davidson
Friday, May 8, 2009

Isn't it nice when members of a congressional panel go to great lengths to support their chairman?

Take the members of the Senate subcommittee on oversight of government management, the federal workforce and the District of Columbia, for example. Yesterday, as if to prove Chairman Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) correct when he said federal government recruitment is "an important issue that often does not receive the attention it deserves," no other senators were at the hearing on the subject.

In fairness, Ohio Sen. George V. Voinovich, the panel's top Republican and a longtime advocate for improving federal personnel practices, did arrive in a few minutes. Sen. Roland W. Burris (D-Ill.) later made a relatively brief appearance, asked a few basic questions, admittedly reflective of his rookie status, and left.

The other members of the panel didn't bother to show at all, demonstrating the Akaka truth that the issue doesn't get the attention it deserves, which is a major reason the hiring process continues to be in chaos.

Of course, the Washington cognoscenti know this is the way Congress generally does business. Those outside the Beltway might be fooled, by grand televised events such as major confirmation hearings, into thinking that all meetings are well attended by lawmakers.

Nonetheless, yesterday's hearing was an important step in fixing a hiring process that produces more aggravation than appreciation for the way Uncle Sam does business.

The subject of the hearing was legislation offered by Akaka and Voinovich to provide that fix. Among other things, the optimistically titled Federal Hiring Process Improvement Act would require that agencies keep candidates informed of the status of their applications.

It tells you something about the state of federal hiring that the two senators most closely involved with the issue feel a federal law is needed to get agencies to write their job announcements in plain language rather than the dense government jargon so common in this town. If the bill becomes law, the dreaded essays on an applicants' knowledge, skills and abilities would no longer be required.

"The federal government also needs to make the hiring process more user-friendly," Akaka said. "Candidates should not have to abandon their federal job search in frustration with the process. Vacancy announcements should clearly explain the job's duties, qualifications and requirements to apply. Agencies must work to make the hiring process simpler and quicker, while protecting the merit system principles."

The best candidates, he added, "are not likely to wade through a slow, complicated and uninformative process."

John Berry, the new director of the Office of Personnel Management, couldn't agree more. He characterized the legislation as "a great first step." But he went on to say that his goal is to do administratively what the senators plan to do legislatively.

"I hope this year we can nail this . . .," he said, "so throughout the government we have a clean, clear hiring process."

He plans to form "wolf packs" within the OPM that would break down bureaucratic barriers and bring new ideas to old, entrenched problems.

One problem with his administrative approach, however, is that the OPM is like a wolf with no teeth and not even that much of a growl. Berry acknowledged that the dubious call his agency the "office of personnel recommendations." Departments and agencies around town know there is no penalty for ignoring the OPM.

He told of working with one unnamed agency to reduce a job announcement from 75 pages to four, only to have the agency stick with the mammoth document. Despite that experience and many others, Berry says the OPM wants "to try the voluntary approach, again" before moving to mandatory means to get agency hiring practices in shape.

It should be noted that the OPM isn't always a model that her sister agencies should follow. "Even within my own agency, I find that sound human resources management practices have not taken hold," he admitted in his written testimony.

Voinovich just happened to have a case in point. He said the OPM and intelligence agencies developed an improved security clearance form to help un-jam the bottleneck that develops around background checks. An agitated Voinovich said the form was ready to be issued in December, but it has been stalled in the OPM since then.

Berry, who took over the OPM last month, pleaded ignorance and said: "I'll get to the bottom of this. This is news to me."

Sounding somewhat exasperated at the seemingly endless effort to fix federal hiring, Voinovich noted that he leaves the Senate in less than two years.

Almost his first words at the hearing were "We got to get this done."

The hiring improvement bill can be found on the Library of Congress's Thomas site (http://www.thomas.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c111:S.736:).

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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