Officials to give themselves a round of applause for reforms in the hiring process

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; 7:27 PM

When it comes to the federal hiring process, horror stories once proliferated like dandelions in a spring lawn.

That's beginning to change. And just in case the change hasn't been noticed widely enough, Obama administration officials will celebrate their progress during a program Wednesday at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Basking in self-congratulations - deserved, it should be noted - agency leaders will "share stories as to how federal agencies have successfully overcome barriers in order to implement hiring reform within the Federal workforce," in the words of an Office of Personnel Management news release.

The barriers were significant. They certainly haven't disappeared, yet there's no doubt that important efforts have been made in the six months since President Obama issued a memorandum ordering agencies "to overhaul the way they recruit and hire our civilian workforce."

Moving the right people into the right position is a big challenge for any employer, and Uncle Sam, the nation's biggest boss, has had more than his share of troubles on this front. Getting this right is particularly important in the arena of national security. The slow-moving security clearance process has been one of the more frustrating aspects of federal service.

But just as the federal hiring process has improved from the mess it once was, clearance also no longer moves at a snail's pace.

"Individuals seeking to work for the federal government now face a substantially different clearance experience than they did just a few years ago," Jeffrey D. Zients, deputy director for the Office of Management and Budget, told a Senate panel Tuesday.

Consider these two points from officials at a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia:

The OPM, which provides background investigations for more than 100 federal agencies, completes initial clearance inquiries in 39 days in 90 percent of the cases. Three years ago, it took 115 days. At the Defense Department, the security clearance process that once took almost a year now takes less than three months for most cases.

But significant progress apparently is not universal.

"I am particularly concerned about the lack of progress being made regarding reciprocity, as I still consistently hear from individuals who have problems with one agency accepting another agency's clearance," Sen. George V. Voinovich said in his opening statement, while mentioning improvements.

It was a nostalgic moment for the Ohio Republican, who is retiring from Congress, as witnesses praised his service. Those who testify before congressional panels routinely kiss up to elected officials, thanking them for their great leadership on this and that and blah, blah, blah. The difference at this hearing was that the witnesses really meant their words of tribute to a man who has devoted many years to federal employee issues.

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