OPM head takes 'hostile fire' on hiring, intern program

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, took some
John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, took some "hostile fire" at a recent hearing on federal hiring. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Joe Davidson
Thursday, May 20, 2010

John Berry generally has it pretty easy when he goes to Capitol Hill.

The Office of Personnel Management director is personable, enthusiastic and eager to fix a federal hiring bureaucracy that has no advocates.

He would have had good reason to expect a comfortable time during his appearance at a congressional hearing Wednesday, which came on the heels of President Obama's well-received directive to overhaul federal hiring.

So it was noteworthy when the chairman of a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee, Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), took note of the aggressive questioning directed at Berry and said: "Director, you have taken some hostile fire."

It's not that members of the federal workforce subcommittee were hostile toward the reforms Obama ordered and Berry is in charge of enforcing. Those were greeted warmly, if not in every detail.

But their pointed questions reflected mounting concern that special government hiring authorities, particularly the Federal Career Intern Program, are being used by federal agencies to circumvent competitive hiring practices and established veteran hiring preferences.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) told Berry she was "shocked" to learn that almost half of the federal hires are done outside the normal competitive process. "Oh, my goodness" was Norton's response, after learning from Berry that individual agencies, not the OPM, administer the program and that employees could stay in the internship program for two years before converting to the civil service. She also said that "career intern" is an oxymoron.

Despite its misleading handle, the internship program doesn't provide students with a few months of federal government experience. Instead, the program designed to allow agencies to quickly hire for certain vacancies, without the need to follow rules that apply to competitive positions. For example, there is no requirement that career intern openings be advertised publicly.

Under direct hiring authorities, agencies do not need to follow veterans' preference policies, which give five to 10 extra points during a candidate's evaluation in the competitive process.

The preference policy for veterans was another point of contention at the hearing, despite the high priority and significant efforts the Obama administration has made to boost veterans' employment.

"Many veterans want to remain in public service," Tim Embree, of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told the subcommittee, "but are faced with a federal government that shockingly does not understand the value and skills veterans bring to the workforce."

His organization called for an investigation into direct hiring programs, such as the intern program, "to determine whether these programs are being used to avoid the hiring of veterans in the federal government."

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