Obama to shut down Federal Career Intern Program

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010; 12:00 AM

President Obama plans to issue an executive order, perhaps as early as this week, ending a federal internship program that critics say circumvents proper hiring practices.

Since it began in 2001, the Federal Career Intern Program has been used to hire more than 100,000 people - few of them interns as traditionally understood and many of them border and customs officers who later became permanent-status federal employees.

The program has drawn fire from federal employee unions and from the government board that oversees federal hiring practices, which ruled in November that the program undermined the rights of veterans, in particular, who were seeking federal work.

According to a draft copy of the executive order, which The Washington Post obtained from a person involved with the review process, the program will be terminated in March and be replaced with a program clearly designed to provide short-term federal work opportunities for recent graduates of schools of all kinds.

"This program has led to abuses in hiring," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal labor union. He also said it had created "a feeling of hostility in the workforce to the intern program."

Because it had been used to skirt regular hiring procedures, he said Saturday, federal workers will be pleased to see it end and be replaced by a program targeted specifically to young people and graduating students.

The FCIP was created by President Bill Clinton in 2000 with the stated goal of attracting "exceptional men and women to the Federal workforce" and preparing them "for careers in analyzing and implementing public programs."

About 400 people were hired under the streamlined rules of the program in 2001, but that number quickly grew - to 6,600 in 2004 and more than 26,700 in 2009. Agencies were able to hire much faster than usual under the program because they did not have to advertise open positions.

The Office of Personnel and Management, which oversees the program, had no comment on the president's plans.

Although federal worker unions have criticized and challenged the program, managers have often liked it for the hiring flexibility and speed it allows.

The Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that studies the federal workforce, also has been supportive of the FCIP.

"We believe the growth is related to a very simple reason overall: It works well as a hiring authority for those agencies that use it," John Palguta, a Partnership vice president, said at a public OPM meeting in June. (The Partnership and The Post have a content-sharing relationship.)

Even supporters, however, acknowledge that its name is misleading. Rather than serving as a limited program for students, it has been used broadly by some agencies to fill vacancies.

"Since 2003, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has used FCIP as its exclusive method for hiring all incoming customs and border protection officers," Maureen Gilman, legislative director of the National Treasury Employees Union, told Congress in May. Colleen M. Kelley, that union's president, said in a statement Saturday that "The current program circumvents merit principles and veteran's preference."

A concerted effort by federal employee unions to revamp or terminate the program got a boost in November with the Merit Systems Protection Board's ruling that it violates the preference veterans are granted in federal hiring.

"Untold numbers of veterans are potentially being shut out of job opportunities for which they would have preference, because the agencies are filling the positions under FCIP without public notice," the board ruled.

Dropping the program could help smooth the relationship between organized labor and the White House. Those relations sunk when Obama proposed a two-year federal pay freeze, to take effect in January. That led to the harshest criticism ever directed to Obama from the generally supportive unions.

Obama's executive order is part of the administration's broader effort to fix what many describe as a dysfunctional hiring process.

The draft executive order, for instance, states that "The complexity of the rules governing admission to the career civil service creates a barrier to recruiting and hiring students and recent graduates. . . . It places the Federal Government at a competitive disadvantage compared to private-sector employers when it comes to hiring qualified applicants for entry-level positions."

When Obama issued a presidential memorandum in May calling for major changes in hiring procedures, he ordered the OPM to evaluate the intern program and provide recommendations concerning the program's future. The decision to end it followed from that evaluation and the federal worker protection board's ruling.

In one of the cases before the board, Larry Evans said the Veterans Affairs Department violated his veterans' preference when it used the intern program to fill all nine openings for service representatives in its Columbia, S.C., facility. In support of Evans, the NTEU and the AFGE said the positions should have been subject to regular competitive hiring practices. The board agreed that Evans was entitled to be reconsidered for one of the jobs.

In a case involving the OPM, a veteran, David Dean of South Carolina, argued that his right to compete for federal jobs was violated because the intern program is not required to publicly post vacancies. The board concluded that Dean did not have an opportunity to fully compete for the job and to have his veterans' preference rights taken into account.

Although the internship program that hired thousands of workers is slated to end, men and women hired through it and then retained will not lose their jobs. The draft order says that those workers "shall be converted to the competitive service . . . with no loss of pay or benefits."

The order also establishes a new Internship Program and and a new Recent Graduates Program. They will join the Presidential Management Fellows Program as part of a new effort called the Pathways Program.

The draft order instructs agencies to provide "meaningful development work" for interns, who can be graduates of institutions including high schools, community colleges, trade and technical schools, and universities.

The current Presidential Management Fellows Program would be slightly changed under the order. No longer would applicants be nominated by their graduate schools. OPM would establish eligibility requirements and qualifications. The central thrust of the program, to develop a "cadre of potential government leaders," according to OPM literature, would remain.

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