OPM extends direct hire authority for acquisition jobs

A new rule giving agencies authority to hire acquisition employees directly could aid the Obama administration's efforts to bring contract jobs back in-house, and could inform the conversation about hiring reform, according to federal workforce advocates.

In a Federal Register notice published on Tuesday, the Office of Personnel Management finalized a regulation extending direct hire authority for procurement jobs. The rule allows heads of civilian agencies to determine whether there is a dearth of strong candidates for certain acquisition positions. If they can demonstrate a shortage, then the agency can hire directly, rather than requiring candidates to go through the full standard federal application process. The authority goes into effect on March 24, 2010, and expires on Sept. 30, 2012.

"This is one additional arrow in the management quiver," said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. "It basically says you've got a hunting license. Under the regulations prescribed by OPM, go out and find some great acquisition people."

Matt Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said the union might have opposed the rule during the Bush administration, seeing it as an effort to hire workers who would identify more government jobs that could be contracted out. But IFPTE supports it now because there are limits on the authority and the Obama administration has different intentions, he said.

"The idea is not to bring in an acquisition workforce to look at the contracts and bring more work out, but to review them with intent to get rid of the waste and bring [jobs] back in," Biggs said. "This is an isolated kind of hiring for a limited amount of time."

Palguta noted that while decisions to convert contractor jobs to government positions might seem simple, they require complicated analyses of whether positions are inherently governmental, and if not, whether the government would save money and achieve better results by giving the work to federal employees. The intricacies of the review process make it particularly important to have a talented acquisition workforce available, he said.

Biggs and Palguta also said the extension of direct hire authority could inform broader conversations about retooling the federal hiring system.

"There's a desperate need for hiring reform," Biggs said. "Overall, labor and management agree on this point. When it's all said and done, if this turns out to be a successful project, then certainly it should be looked at."

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