In what has become a regular presidential election year reminder, federal agencies have been told to make sure that hiring decisions into career federal positions are based on merit, not political influence.

An Office of Personnel Management memo issued Friday said that in particular, any hirings of political appointees into career positions “require careful attention to ensure they comply with merit principles regarding fair and open competition.”

The practice of converting political appointees into career positions – where they would gain protections against being summarily replaced should a change in administrations occur – is commonly called “burrowing in.”

Under memos issued in 2008 and 2004 that also warned against burrowing in, OPM conducted a pre-hiring reviews of proposed hiring of appointees into the career competitive service during the year leading up to a presidential election.

Since 2010, OPM has reviewed all of those proposed hirings, and also has extended the scrutiny to positions in the excepted service – career positions that do not lend themselves to standard types of competitions.

Although political-to-career conversions are a point of controversy inside the federal workplace, the most recent outside examination showed that they are relatively rare. A 2010 Government Accountability Office report found only 117 such conversions over 2005-2009 at middle or higher levels. It concluded that in 92 of those cases, proper procedures were followed and those hired were qualified for the jobs. GAO said there was insufficient information to make a determination in 18 cases, and the other seven were questionable.

At GAO’s request, OPM later looked into five of those cases and found that two involved improper conversions to career positions, while in the other cases standard hiring procedures weren’t followed but there was no evidence that the process had been manipulated to benefit the individual.

OPM’s new memo adds that political appointees are not eligible for incentive awards from June 1 through the next Inauguration, Jan. 20, 2013.