On federal-hiring overhaul, the devil is in the details

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; B03

Everyone agrees that the federal-hiring process needs fixing, but that doesn't mean everyone agrees on how to fix it.

That will become evident Wednesday afternoon when Congress holds its first hearing on federal hiring since President Obama ordered its revamping last week.

Certainly, his plan to sharply cut the time it takes to hire federal workers is universally praised. No one objects to making agencies inform candidates of their application status at definite points during the process, instead of the current practice in which applications seem to disappear. And having Uncle Sam move to a résumé-based system, rather than one that relies on dreaded essays covering an applicant's knowledge, skills and abilities, is widely welcomed.

Although there is broad agreement on most of the president's plan, the hearing before a House Oversight and Government Reform panel will point to areas of disagreement and disappointment among friends.

What Obama's effort will do to the preference now given to veterans in hiring will be one point of contention.

The administration and a good-government group will argue that the presidential memorandum signed May 11 will in no way harm that preference. In fact, the administration has been aggressive in its effort to increase opportunities for veterans, beginning with "The Employment of Veterans in the Federal Government" executive order Obama signed on Veterans Day last year.

Nonetheless, federal employee unions aren't so sure that the memorandum is consistent with that priority.

This contention revolves around "category hiring" replacing the "rule of three." Under this rule, a boss can select a new hire from only the top three candidates on a list. If the two not selected want to apply to a different agency, even in the same department, they must start the laborious process from the beginning.

With Obama's category hiring plan, a boss would be able to hire anyone deemed qualified. After one agency in a department hires from that list, another agency in the same department also could hire from the same list, saving candidates from starting from scratch. The administration favors extending category hiring across departmental lines, but that will take congressional action.

Unions, generally among Obama's strongest supporters, greet the category hiring plan coolly.

In a statement prepared for the federal workforce subcommittee hearing, Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said that "we question the need for totally eliminating the rule of three," because it "provides a merit based, objective and transparent selection process."

Some union leaders fear that by broadening the process, category rating could weaken the hiring preference given to veterans. Administration officials reject that notion. And Timothy McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service, will tell the subcommittee that "a greater percentage of veterans were actually being hired in organizations that were allowed to use 'category rating' on a trial basis."

The impact on vets also is an issue with the Federal Career Intern Program. NTEU wants the program eliminated and has taken legal action against it because of allegations that it violates competitive-hiring principles. But Obama took a more cautious approach, ordering the Office of Personnel Management to evaluate it and to "provide recommendations concerning the future of that program."

That's not good enough for the American Federation of Government Employees.

"We are disappointed, however, that the president has not used the memorandum to restrict the use of the Federal Career Intern Program," Jacqueline Simon, AFGE's public policy director, plans to tell the panel. "Numerous agencies have been using the FCIP almost exclusively for new hires, evading competitive procedures and veterans' preference in the process."

Fifteen percent of those hired under the program are vets, according McManus, citing OPM figures. That's considerably lower than the one-quarter of all executive branch employees who are vets, but considerably higher than the 8 percent employment rate for veterans found in the private sector.

This internship program has a somewhat bogus moniker, because it doesn't bring students into the government for a few months as the name implies. Unless it's scrapped, Simon argues that it will weaken Obama's recruitment efforts.

"If the hiring reforms the administration has presented are to have any relevance," Simon said, "the FCIP must be either repealed or vastly scaled back."

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