Now the question is when, not how, to fix federal hiring

It's not a lack of ideas that's holding up federal hiring reform

Federal hiring — specifically how slow it is — has washed up on the shores of Congress. Most likely it will act like a non-metaphoric wave. A moment of excitement and drama, then the draining away with little effect. The same annoying seaweed masses, split soccer balls and weathered sticks will still be there to spoil your barefoot  run into the surf.

In the latest run at reforming the sclerotic federal hiring process, three diverse organizations, all recruited by Congress, sent back extensive recommendations, 124 of them to be precise. The commissions talk about more than strictly hiring and get into the related issues with retention, training, and the basic appeal of public service.

As we’ve reported, the commissions challenged Congress — specifically the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees — to put the reform ideas into the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. Over the years the NDAAs have attracted Defense non-specific provisions like a magnet attracts iron shavings.

You might see a little parochialism in the recommendations. The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence tuned its thinking to improving the numbers and quality of AI people in government. The U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission concerned itself with cybersecurity people. The National Commission on Military, National and Public Service (NCMNPS) looked more broadly to the many forms of public service.

Yet they express common themes. These include greater use of excepted services, like the Cyber Excepted Service; more programs like Pathways for students or recent graduates; occupation-specific proficiency tests; sharpening the veterans’ preference apparatus; and expanding direct hiring authorities. My interviews with AI Commission co-chair Robert Work and with NCMNPS chairman Joe Heck go into these ideas in some detail.

They and others have noted, over the years, how many authorities outside the standard competitive process that are available to hiring agencies.

The unspoken question is this: Can federal hiring become streamlined and flexible and customizable to each agency situation such that it doesn’t turn the clock back a century? At one time nearly all federal jobs were patronage, a practice established by the early presidents.

A return to pure patronage seems like a remote possibility. Strong legal and institutional traditions pretty much keep political appointments to the 4,000 or so Plum Book jobs. Appointees, if picked skillfully, can already have enormous influence on policy. Besides, there’s nothing in Title 5 that prevents the government from scraping the barnacles off the standard, competitive hiring practices.

A more relevant question is how to prevent simple cronyism and incompetent hiring at the agency level. It’s a rare organization where one individual hires another without any review by peers or colleagues. A strong and independent HR function can help here, and the commissions have recommendations for that also.

Even Congress itself sometimes expresses frustration at federal hiring. Just this week, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) proposed a bill to accelerate hiring at the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Spending, a butterfly still in the larva stage even as hundreds of billions of greenbacks gush out of the Treasury. The bill, with at least one Democratic co-sponsor so far, dispenses with the normal hiring niceties by simply declaring the SIGPR a temporary organization. Which it is, in terms of a 250-year-old republic.

You could — and I would — argue that other pressing federal requirements mitigate in favor of more streamlined hiring. As Nicole Ogrysko reported, somehow the Veterans Health Administration managed to scoop in some 12,000 new employees within eight weeks. Pandemic requirements forced its hand. This for an agency that had a list of 40,000 unfilled jobs lingering for years.

As Joe Heck put it to me, “I think part of it is just the lack of momentum or the lack of innovation within institutions.”

Nearly Useless Factoid

By David Thornton

Abraham Lincoln was the only president to ever receive a patent. His invention, Patent #6469, was a device intended to increase the buoyancy of a boat to prevent it from running aground. It was never marketed.


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