Agencies Struggle to Find Talent, but Use Only a Fraction of Available Hiring Options

Fourteen years ago, auditors at the Government Accountability Office noted that federal managers had complained for years that hiring procedures were too rigid and complex. The main complaint was about “competitive examining,” the most commonly used federal hiring authority, which requires agencies to publicize job openings, screen applications against minimum qualification standards, apply specific selection priorities (such as veterans’ preference), and assess applicants’ knowledge, skills and abilities. The goal is to identify the most qualified applicants, but anybody who’s ever tried to get a job in government or hire someone for a government job knows how cumbersome and ineffective the process can be.

Over the years, Congress and the president have created dozens of alternatives to competitive examining, all aimed at making it easier to quickly recruit and hire qualified personnel. By 2014, the last year for which governmentwide hiring data is available, agencies could potentially exercise as many as 105 hiring authorities. (A hiring authority is the law or regulation that governs how an agency may hire a person into the federal civil service; it determines whether a vacancy must be publicized and how applicants will be assessed.)

But despite widespread and longstanding dissatisfaction with competitive examining and dozens of hiring process alternatives, a new GAO study finds that competitive examining remains the single most used authority in federal hiring. Of the 105 hiring authorities available in 2014, agencies used only 20 authorities for 91 percent of new hires. Why? Neither the Office of Personnel Management nor agencies themselves know the answer.

“OPM officials said they do not know if agencies rely on a small number of authorities because agencies are unfamiliar with other authorities, or if they have found other authorities to be less effective,” GAO said.

After competitive examining, the most used hiring authority was the Veterans Affairs Department Title 38 hiring authority, under which VA hired 8,000 nurses and 3,000 medical officers in response to increased demand.     

GAO examined what hiring authorities agencies used; how effective those authorities were; and how OPM ensured agencies had the information and assistance needed to use those authorities effectively.

To determine the effectiveness of hiring, auditors focused on hiring for skills associated with three critical occupational areas (information technology, contracting and STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at three agencies: the Air Force Materiel Command, Energy Department and National Institutes of Health.

“Given agencies' reliance on a relatively small number of authorities in 2014, assessments of authorities’ effectiveness could help inform whether there are opportunities to refine, consolidate, or reduce the number of available authorities to simplify the hiring process, or whether the provisions of some agency-specific authorities should be expanded to more agencies,” GAO wrote.

Unfortunately, neither OPM nor agencies collect data that would make such assessments possible, GAO said. While OPM tracks the time it takes to hire new employees as well as applicant and manager satisfaction levels associated with jobs posted on the USA jobs website, such data is not used to analyze the effectiveness of specific hiring authorities.

Without this information, OPM and agencies have no way to gauge the effectiveness of specific hiring authorities or the Obama administration’s 2010 Hiring Reform Initiative, GAO said.

In addition, specific hiring authorities can actually undermine some public policy goals. GAO cited a 2015 Merit Systems Protection Board report that found when agencies used veteran-specific hiring authorities in 2012, they hired between 50 percent and 60 percent more men than women. Better information on the impact of specific authorities would help agencies make more effective use of those authorities.

GAO recommended that OPM conduct assessments of specific hiring authorities and use that data to refine the authorities, as well as provide agencies with more targeted assistance in hiring. OPM generally concurred with the findings.

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