Longer probationary periods will get another look in Congress this week

Lawmakers — once again — are considering longer probationary periods for members of the competitive service and Senior Executive Service.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will consider a new bill that would extend the probationary period for federal employees and senior executives from one year to two.

Under the Ensuring a Qualified Civil Service (EQUALS) Act,  probationary periods for employees who need formal training or a specific license would start at the time of the job appointment to the date that’s two years after the time that the formal training ends or the license is granted.

The bill is one of several that the committee will consider a markup Thursday morning.

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The House oversight committee considered a similar bill last January. Member organizations of the Government Managers Coalition at the time said they generally favored the concept of longer probationary periods, which they argue will give employees more time to complete specialized training and supervisors more time to evaluate their performance.

A two-year probationary period would also fall in line with the two-year “trial period” that federal employees hired under the excepted service appointments.

“In light of ongoing agency reorganization efforts, it is now more important than ever to ensure federal managers making personnel decisions have a comprehensive tool set available that represents both flexibility for agencies and fairness for affected federal employees,” the Government Managers Coalition wrote Tuesday in a letter to the committee.

Congress authorized two-year probationary periods for Defense Department employees in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act.

In a 2015 Government Accountability Office report, chief human capital officers told GAO agency supervisors often don’t have enough time to accurately review their employees’ performance within a year.

At the Social Security Administration, for example, new employees in most entry-level positions at the agency’s field offices take four months of classroom training, said Chris Detzler, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations.

Typically, SSA claims specialists take both classroom and practical training, where they learn about the laws, regulations and policies behind the agency’s retirement or disability benefits. Mentoring is also a component of the training process, he said.

“It varies from person to person, but it can take three to four years from someone to be a fully independent claims specialist,” Detzler said.

The EQUALS Act would give SSA supervisors much more time to determine whether a new employee will make a good specialist.

“It’s really an employee benefit, and it gives supervisors  the chance to do what they’re supposed to do, which is evaluate performance,” Detzler said.

An inter-agency weather preparedness council

As FEMA and others continue to respond to three major hurricanes and devastating wildfires in California, Congress wants agencies to form a new entity that would develop best practices for responding to major weather events.

The Preparedness and Risk Management for Extreme Weather Patterns Assuring Resilience and Effectiveness (PREPARE) Act would create an inter-agency council to help agencies better coordinate and prepare for major weather events.

The president would appoint senior officials from several agencies and White House offices, including the Council on Environmental Quality, Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Security Council, Office of Management and Budget, Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and FEMA, as well as the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Justice and Transportation.

The deputy DHS secretary and deputy OMB director would serve as the council’s co-chairs, who will also decide how much funding, personnel and other resources the group will need.

The council would develop a series of recommendations for agencies to develop or update their extreme weather plans and eliminate any barriers to state and local resources and plans. In addition, the council would ensure that agencies’ resilience and weather preparedness activities aren’t duplicative with other federal entities.

Whistleblower protections

The oversight committee will also consider a companion to a Senate bill that would give whistleblower ombudsmen a greater role in supporting their agencies’ programs.

Reps. Rod Blum (R-Iowa), co-chair of the House Whistleblower Caucus, and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) sponsored the legislation.

Under the current law, agencies are required to designate one official to focus on whistleblower protection issues. The Whistleblower Protection Coordination Act would change the name of these officials from “ombudsmen” to “whistleblower protection coordinators.”

These officials would serve permanently in agency inspector general offices, and they would be responsible for helping the IG communicate with Congress, the Office of Special Counsel and the Merit Systems Protection Board as agencies investigate whistleblower disclosures and reprisal cases.

The Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) will facilitate work from agencies’ whistleblower protection coordinators, the bill said.

“Inspectors general have the expertise to help agency employees when they blow the whistle on waste, fraud and abuse,” Cummings said in a statement. “The easier the process is for whistleblowers, the more likely they are to come forward and save the taxpayers’ money. In turn, when whistleblowers bring forward evidence of wrongdoing, the IGs and their staffs can investigate and root out waste and abuse.”

Inspectors general must report on instances of whistleblower retaliation and any consequences that agency leaders imposed to hold those officials accountable.

Blum and Cummings’ bill also eliminates the sunset on the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which is due to expire this year. It’s been five years since Congress passed WPEA.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee cleared the Whistleblower Protection Coordination Act out of committee early last month. The committee’s leadership, Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), along with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sponsored the bill in their chamber.

Other bills

In addition, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will consider legislation that would prohibit political appointees from taking a federal career position for two years after leaving as an appointee.

Finally, the committee will consider the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, which House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) each introduced Tuesday.

The legislation would put many of the recommendations from the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking in law.

The bill establishes a new Inter-agency Council on Evaluation Policy to support agencies as they develop clear plans for using the data and metrics they already collect to track progress of their own programs.

The legislation would authorize that each agency appoint a chief evaluation officer.

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