Will Congress tackle the federal workforce elephant(s) in the room?

Even in the middle of global pandemic and historic economic fallout, there are still appropriations bills to pass. The annual defense policy bill, sure-fire legislation for the last 59 years, must get done too.

A trio of congressionally-chartered commissions this week offered up 13-pages ideas to include in the next defense authorization bill change federal hiring, recruitment and other workforce policies.

Many of the recommendations come from the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service, which has spent the past two years studying how government could make service opportunities more attractive to the American public.

The commission made 164 recommendations to Congress and the president in late March. Among them are many tried-and-true ideas that the federal community is likely familiar with — changing the hiring process, building up a government “cyber corps” and expanding the use of direct-hire authorities are a few common ones.

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But other recommendations are bound to stir up at least some controversy.

Take the commission’s recommendation on veterans’ preference as an example.

Veterans preference has long been the elephant in the room for some chief human capital officers, who, when asked about it, seem to choose their words very carefully.

The commission recommended agencies essentially use veterans’ preference as a tiebreaker between two candidates who are up for the same job and have similar levels of competency and qualifications. In those situations, the veteran would receive the job over the civilian, according to the proposal.

The commission also recommended a 10-year time limit for veterans to use their hiring preference at a federal agency. Preference should be used once to help veterans enter the federal workforce, but not gain multiple other positions after their initial entry to government, the commission said.

Proposals to change veterans’ preference have been floating around for years, but the topic is often approached like politics or religion — you try not to touch it.

The commissions also made several proposals to change the federal internship program, otherwise known as Pathways.

“The government should increase the use of the Pathways Internship Program as a mechanism to screen and hire new employees,” the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence wrote in a May 7 letter to leaders on the House and Senate armed services committees. “To do so, caps on the number of applicants should be eliminated; agencies should create their own, position-specific qualification standards rather than relying on OPM qualification standards; and conversion from internship to full-time position should be allowed in a shorter period of time.”

The National Commission on Military, National and Public Service took the recommendation a step further, suggesting Congress give agencies a concrete goal to hire no fewer than 30,000 interns and recent graduates per year into term and permanent, competitive positions through existing hiring authorities. By 2031, agencies should be hiring no fewer than 50,000 students and recent graduates each year.

Existing data shows agencies have a long way to go. Agencies hired just 4,000 student hires to term or permanent positions in fiscal 2018. In 2010, they hired 35,000 interns.

So will these proposals go anywhere?

That’s anyone’s guess at the moment.

On one hand, the pandemic has certainly stalled congressional work on appropriations bills and the annual defense policy bill, and congressional members are still arguing over their priorities for a fifth coronavirus relief package.

But the recommendations do come from congressionally-chartered commissions. Lawmakers essentially asked for these recommendations, and the National Defense Authorization Act is also often a catch-all for civilian policy changes big and small.

The buying power of the three commissions — who have all determined the federal government “must reform how it recruits, trains and educates its workforce” or otherwise risk losing its competitive edge — may help too.

“Though our commissions’ mandates focus on different topics, we have come to shared conclusions concerning the federal government’s human capital needs,” their letter reads.

Other news you may have missed this week….

The Senate is interested in changing up benefits for a very small group of federal retirees.

Air traffic controllers in the Federal Aviation Administration typically must retire by age 56. Most  receive supplemental annuity payments, which are capped at a specific threshold, until they reach age 62, when they can collect Social Security benefits.

A bipartisan group of senators last year had introduced legislation that would allow certain air traffic controllers to receive full annuity supplements even if their income exceeded the usual limit.

This particular Senate bill, called the CONTRACT Act, would allow controllers who work in FAA contract towers to collect full supplemental annuity benefits without the usual income limits.

The Congressional Budget Office recently scored the bill and found it would have an “insignificant” impact on federal spending, $1.5 million a year.

And Federal News Network conducted a survey of nearly 1,200 respondents, who described their experiences teleworking over the last several weeks. Most said they’re enjoying it and feeling more productive, though employees with young kids at home are dealing with more difficult challenges.

Check out a new visualization of the survey results here.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Alazar Moges

A lot of folks are finding themselves needing a glass of wine these days. To produce just one bottle of wine takes between 600-800 grapes.

Source: Wine Spectator