Near the end of a House hearing yesterday, Rep. Jo Ann S. Davis (R-Va.) asked the question many federal job applicants ask: Why does it take so long to get hired in the government?

There appears to be no single reason, based on the responses from agency officials testifying before Davis, chairman of the House civil service subcommittee.

In some cases, agencies' hiring officials bog down in reading applications and conducting interviews, Dan G. Blair, deputy director at the Office of Personnel Management, suggested. As a result, timely offers are not made.

Agencies, Blair said, need to track how long hiring decisions take and strive to spend only 45 days between the time they stop accepting applications and when they make an offer to job seekers.

In other cases, supervisors wait until an employee leaves, turning the search for a replacement into a "drama" that complicates the effort to fill the job, said Claudia Cross, director of human resources management at the Energy Department.

Supervisors need to anticipate turnover, get involved in recruitment and create a pipeline of ready prospects to promote or hire, she said.

At many agencies, delays occur when officials try to find people to serve on interview panels and meet with job applicants, said Christopher Mihm, director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office. Creating a sense of urgency about filling a just-vacated job sometimes becomes the quickest way to get people at the table for job interviews and hiring decisions, he said.

The government, Mihm added, needs to streamline almost every stage of the hiring process. He said that OPM needs to work through an interagency group, the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, to more thoroughly analyze and promote the use of effective and quick hiring methods.

Yesterday's hearing was the second Davis has held on the federal hiring process. Davis said she regularly hears from constituents who complain that it takes months to learn whether they are being considered for federal employment. Other testimony collected by the subcommittee indicated that numerous applicants never receive feedback on where they stand and that many job seekers have difficulty understanding federal job forms.

GAO research, Mihm testified, found that many agencies are not using the two more-flexible hiring processes -- known as category rating and direct hire -- provided by Congress two years ago. When asked why, some of the agencies faulted OPM for not providing adequate guidelines, Mihm said.

Ed Sontag, assistant secretary for administration and management at the Health and Human Services Department, suggested that it may be time to revamp the application process for entry-level jobs. Current practices tend to favor applicants who can show they have certain types of job experience, making it difficult for the government to hire recent college graduates, he said.

Cross, Sontag and David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, described efforts underway in their departments to improve hiring practices.

But Cross stressed that Congress should expect hiring practices to vary by agency, depending on the jobs to be filled and the work to be performed.

The Energy Department, she said, needs experts in acquisition, nuclear engineering, nuclear safety and security. In hiring, Cross said, the department "will not sacrifice quality for speed. We want the best, even if it takes a bit more time."

Tooth and Eye Provision

The House has approved a fiscal 2005 spending bill for the legislative branch that would allow Congress to study and upgrade dental and vision benefits for congressional employees. The dental-vision provision was sponsored by Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.).

Rep. Davis and Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine) are leading efforts to improve the dental and vision benefits provided to civil service employees.

Diary Live Today

Christopher Jahn, president of the Contract Services Association of America, will take questions and comments on "competitive sourcing" at noon today on Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com