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

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, May 20, 2010; B03

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."

Obama has ordered Berry to evaluate the internship program and make recommendations "concerning the future of that program."

Its future, at least in its current form, may be in doubt.

Unions representing federal employees strenuously oppose how widely the program has come to be used.

"We believe an objective view will result in a recommendation to end the program," said Maureen Gilman of the National Employees Treasury Union.

Since fiscal 2003, the number of FCIP workers has multiplied by nearly 70, according to Lynch, who said the figure has jumped from 400 in 2003 to 27,000 last year. After the hearing, Lynch said the House probably would consider legislation to deal with it in some way, along with a measure to reform the federal hiring process.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) has already introduced legislation designed to improve genuine intern programs, the ones that truly work with students. He said his bill would require agencies to report on the best practices of programs serving interns, as a way to improve their recruitment into full-time positions.

Hiring-reform legislation was passed unanimously late Tuesday in the Senate. It would require the heads of executive agencies to develop a strategic workforce plan designed to streamline the hiring process.

Like the reforms outlined in Obama's directive, the legislation would allow applicants to apply using cover letters and résumés, instead of writing essays about their knowledge, skills and abilities. Agencies also would be required to give job candidates notice of the status of their applications or provide them the ability to check them themselves. The bill calls for officials to develop a plan to fill vacancies within 80 calendar days. The legislation also would put into law the president's order that job announcements be written in plain language.

The bill was sponsored by Sens. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), the chairman and top Republican, respectively, of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs federal workforce subcommittee.

Akaka said the "Federal Hiring Process Improvement Act will make sure efficient, common-sense hiring practices are used government-wide and that these practices last through time."

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