Perhaps the Bush administration needs to ask Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants slugger, to take a whack at the federal hiring process. It's a curveball all of its own.
Two years ago, federal agencies petitioned Congress for new methods to evaluate job seekers and bring them on board faster. Congress approved two new ways as part of the legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security.
But the procedures are barely being used, the General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency, reported to a House subcommittee last week.
When the GAO asked why, 21 top officials from across government offered these reasons: a lack of guidance from the Office of Personnel Management; rigid regulations issued by OPM; the agencies' lack of implementing policies; and concern about possible inconsistencies in using the new hiring methods.
The officials interviewed by the GAO are members of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, an interagency group created by Congress to develop strategies for dealing with the government's most pressing personnel issues, such as hiring.
The council chairman is Kay Coles James, director of OPM, which oversees the civil service. Eleven of the council members are Bush political appointees.
The comments by members of the interagency group hit OPM like a fastball.
James, in a letter, told GAO that its report "appears to rely upon perceptions that are not consistent with the facts." She pointed out that only eight of the council members attended a training program on the new hiring methods -- which suggests that OPM thinks not all of the personnel officials are knowledgeable enough to comment on federal hiring.
Asked about the GAO findings, Rep. Jo Ann S. Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House civil service subcommittee, said she "heard a blame game going on" at last week's hearing in Chicago.
Davis said, "It boggles my mind" that many job applicants wait several months for agencies to make hiring decisions. "Good people are not going to wait around that long, and if they do, you have to wonder how good they really are," she said.
She said she has directed her staff to convene a follow-up hearing at which OPM officials and agency personnel chiefs who are not using the new hiring methods can play pitch-and-catch with each other. "Let's have them all at the table at one time . . . so they hear each other," Davis said.
The stakes, of course, go beyond the embarrassment that senior-level officials are not playing ball on hiring problems.
As GAO Managing Director J. Christopher Mihm said in his testimony, the government is on the brink "of the most transformational changes to the civil service in half a century."
The departments of Defense and Homeland Security, where almost half of civil service employees work, are planning changes in how they pay, promote and discipline employees. Several other agencies are reviewing how they hire, pay and promote workers.
One of the keys to overhauling the civil service, Mihm said, involves OPM and agencies reaching agreement on their appropriate roles and day-to-day working relationships as the government tries to develop more effective hiring systems.
Another key is getting top agency leaders to focus on hiring issues, said Marcia Marsh, a vice president at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. At successful companies, chief executives and chief operating officers make attracting and retaining talent their top priority, she said.
To give agencies more flexibility, Congress authorized the use of "category rating," so that agencies could hire from a broader pool of applicants and would not be limited to the traditional three. Congress also authorized "direct hire," which streamlines the hiring process for jobs that are difficult to fill.
OPM signaled last week that more batting practice is in order for federal agencies. James announced that she will sponsor a government-wide, all-day "training symposium" June 29 on the new hiring methods.
"Federal hiring takes too long and that must change. The solutions exist at the agency level," James said.
Or as the umpire says, Batter up!