OMB nominees pledge to break down federal hiring barriers

President Joe Biden’s picks to serve in top positions at the Office of Management and Budget vowed on Thursday to remove hurdles from federal hiring, improve employee morale and help agencies keep their workforces safe during the pandemic.

“Successful organizations require talented, diverse, highly engaged teams. The data shows that repeatedly,” Jason Miller, the president’s nominee for the deputy director for management position at OMB, said Thursday at his hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “When we look at the federal government … the engagement levels and the morale levels are not where they should be.”

Both he and Shalanda Young, Biden’s pick to serve as OMB’s deputy director, said they planned to study ways federal agencies could expand the recruitment pool and eliminate challenges to serve.

“People will travel. They will serve their country, they just don’t know a lot of opportunities exist,” she told the Senate committee Thursday. “We can go to community colleges. We need to expand where we go look for talent and do a better job. We certainly need to do it in these areas we are having trouble recruiting in the technology place. Not everything’s about money, and I think people are motivated to serve their government, but we certainly can’t create hurdles.”

Miller vowed to search for bottlenecks in the federal hiring system, which past administrations have tried on multiple occasions.

“We do need to broaden the sources of recruitment into the federal government, including by inspiring people to serve,” Miller said. “This includes a focus on diversity and inclusion. It also includes a focus on technical talent. We need to look at any bottlenecks to bring people in.”

“It’s something that in my role, if confirmed as deputy director for management, I would be willing to work with you and excited to work with you and members of this committee, and more closely with OPM, the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, to make sure we’re empowering, lifting up, engaging with and skilling our federal workforce for our needs today and tomorrow,” he added.

Young got her start in government as a Presidential Management Fellow at the National Institutes of Health, and Young said that experience showed her how government often struggled to reach talent from various backgrounds. She too has struggled to navigate USAJobs.gov.

“I was lucky to find a brochure in a dean’s office in New Orleans,” Young said. “Turns out if you’re on the East Coast and [in] school you knew all this program, but not so much from other parts of the country.”

Several Democrats and Republicans in Congress have said they’d support Young as the agency’s director, now that the president’s initial pick for the job, Neera Tanden, withdrew her nomination earlier this week. Biden hasn’t announced a new nominee for the top OMB job.

Young worked for the House Appropriations Committee in various roles for more than 14 years, eventually becoming the staff director and clerk.

At Thursday’s nomination hearing, Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, described his experience working with Young on the legislation that ultimately ended the 2018-2019 government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said Young was “exceptionally qualified,” adept at explaining complicated concepts and skilled at working with both sides of the aisle to cut deals.

Several senators said they hoped Young’s experience on the House Appropriations Committee would serve her well at OMB, especially when grappling with federal IT modernization challenges.

In a conversation with Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Young agreed federal IT modernization needed more focus and attention, and she acknowledged the annual appropriations cycle made planning for those investments difficult.

A few House and Senate lawmakers originally envisioned the technology modernization fund as a solution to those problems, but Congress hasn’t put much funding into the TMF.

“From my current seat on the appropriations committee, it’s going to take resources,” Young said. “We’ve dealt with budget caps over the 10 years, and when your choice is between programs that impact families and IT systems, sometimes IT systems have not won out.”

The Senate is considering a $1 billion investment in the TMF through the COVID-19 reconciliation package, but it falls short of the $9 billion the Biden administration initially recommended.

Several senators also said they hoped Young’s congressional experience might create a more collaborative, transparent and proactive OMB, especially in the agency’s dealings with Congress.

“The hope is that once you get into the machine, you’ll help us open the machine rather than say it was a good idea to keep it closed,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.).

As the ranking member of the Senate subcommittee on government operations and border management, Lankford has been interested in rewriting federal telework and remote work policies based on agencies’ relatively positive experiences during the pandemic.

He sees an opportunity to take some positions completely remote, meaning anyone could apply.

“Would you commit to working with Sen. [Kyrsten] Sinema (D-Ariz.) and I to talk more about remote work as a possibility, and writing into the job listing itself that this job could be done remote, so somebody locally could get it, or someone anywhere could get this job?” he said.

“I certainly hope we use these lessons from COVID to make systematic changes, and that being one of them,” Young said. “My entire staff on the appropriations committee wrote five bills from home, and I think they did a great job doing it. We’ve proven it works.”

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