Because the government has hired African Americans and Hispanics for professional and administrative jobs in recent years at rates that exceed their representation in the private-sector work force, two special hiring methods designed to aid in federal minority recruitment are no longer needed, an oversight agency said yesterday.

The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, which studies civil service issues, said the special hiring methods, created 18 years ago under a federal court order, have been overtaken by reforms that give agencies more flexibility in hiring. The government's regular competitive hiring procedures allow sufficient recruitment of minorities to ensure a diverse federal work force, the board suggested.

But the board's recommendation to end the special hiring programs was immediately rejected by the Clinton administration's chief personnel officer, who called it "wrong."

Janice R. Lachance, director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), said the merit board's comparison "is not particularly useful" because the court order covered only about 100 federal occupations and cannot be compared to overall private-sector work force figures.

The special hiring methods "are worth continuing" to help the government achieve a diverse work force, she said.

"We still have serious under-representation of Hispanics at virtually all levels of the government and we have a serious under-representation of African Americans at senior levels of the government," Lachance said.

Hispanics comprise 11 percent of the private-sector work force and only 6.4 percent of the federal work force, OPM figures show. Blacks make up 16.7 percent of federal employment, about 6 percentage points above their representation in the private sector.

The differing views underscored long-standing tensions within the government on how to best promote diversity in federal employment while adhering to a century-old principle that government hiring should be based on skills and experience and not favored treatment or political connections.

In a report released yesterday, the merit board focused on jobs covered by a 1981 federal consent decree in a case known as Luevano v. Campbell. The case involved about 100 entry-level "professional and administrative" occupations and included such positions as budget analysts, contract specialists, tax law specialists, claims examiners, park rangers, customs inspectors and writers and editors.

The decree did not cover low-level staff jobs, such as clerical positions, and did not include many jobs that require degrees in law, science and engineering.

The decree threw out a written exam for the professional and administrative jobs and created two programs--Outstanding Scholar and Bilingual/Bicultural--as interim replacements until one or more new competitive exams were designed.

But the two programs became entrenched, in part because they allowed federal managers to make quick hiring decisions based on specific requirements--such as a high grade point average or the ability to speak Spanish. As a result, the board said, numerous agencies avoided competitive procedures that required ranking applicants on skills and statutory preferences, such as military service.

In looking at the Outstanding Scholar program, the board found that actually only 1 in 10 employees hired in 1997 was African American and only about 1 in 14 was Hispanic.

The board said the bilingual hiring program produced results comparable to other hiring methods and was no longer needed. For example, the board said, 40 percent of the 8,000 Border Patrol agents are Hispanic and hold jobs filled through the use of a competitive written exam.

On average, the government hires about 40,000 people each year. The board's report shows that the government hired 2,511 applicants under the two special hiring programs in 1997, the last year for which it had figures.

Merit board Chairman Ben L. Erdreich said the special hiring methods have served their purpose but "it is now time to return to merit-based hiring for this important group of federal jobs."

But Lachance said the special hiring methods continue to be needed to recruit blacks and Hispanics. She said OPM figures showed that 75.2 percent of 1998 hires under the bilingual program have been Hispanic.

Lachance said she wrote Attorney General Janet Reno yesterday to express her strong disagreement with the merit board's report, making it unlikely that the Clinton administration will move to dismantle the special hiring programs.

CAPTION: OPM's Janice R. Lachance said the study "is not particularly useful."