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.

Subcommittee Chairman Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), long Voinovich's partner on the panel, called him "my brother and good friend."

The changing face of Congress was also evident with the appearance of Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who attended the meeting on his first day as a senator. He asked a couple of good questions, not a bad start for a rookie. Of course, senators get points for just showing up at the subcommittee's sessions. Often only Akaka and Voinovich, the top Republican on the panel, bother to attend its hearings on matters of importance to the federal workforce and, therefore, to the functioning of the entire government. We'll see if Coons returns.

On the point of government functioning, OPM Director John Berry listed a string of initiatives that helped to cut clearance time. They include:

- Expanding a central verification system allows agencies access to individuals' investigative histories and clearance statuses with a single search.

- Increasing the use of electronic forms.

- Increasing the use of digital fingerprinting equipment.

- Converting from manual to automated record checks.

"The considerable attention placed on reforming the security clearance process has dramatically improved the timeliness and quality of investigative products while significantly improving the government's ability to 'hire the best' and efficiently put federal and contractor employees to work," Berry said.

Cutting security clearance delays reduces risks to national security, expedites the start of classified work and lowers the cost of national security-related contracts, Brenda S. Farrell, director of defense capabilities and management for the Government Accountability Office, said in a report to the subcommittee.

But her report was not all good news. The Pentagon's security clearance program remains on the GAO's list of programs in urgent need of reform.

"We found missing documentation in reports prepared by OPM that DOD adjudicators had used to make clearance decisions," the report says.

Seventy-eight percent of OPM investigative reports provided to three DOD facilities in July 2008 were missing required documentation, according to the GAO. Among other things, GAO said that incomplete documentation can "reduce the assurance that appropriate safeguards are in place to prevent DOD from granting clearances to untrustworthy individuals."

Citing the recent leak of 500,000 pages of classified documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the report says that giving the wrong people clearance can cause "exceptionally grave damage to U.S. national security."

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