MSPB: Competitive hiring on the decline

Federal agencies are turning less often to the traditional competitive hiring process to fill white-collar positions, potentially hurting the government's ability to achieve a diverse workforce, according to a new report by the Merit Systems Protection Board.

The report, released last week, found that managers used competitive examining for 28 percent of hires in fiscal 2005. That figure never rose much higher than 50 percent during the previous decade, but 28 percent was the low mark. Competitive hiring had dropped to about 30 percent in fiscal 2002, driven largely by new hiring authorities at the Transportation Security Administration. But then it rose to around 40 percent in fiscal 2003 before the latest decline.

Thirty-six percent of new hires in fiscal 2005 were brought in using the three most common exceptions to competitive procedures: authorities under the 1998 Veterans Employment and Opportunity Act, the Veterans Reemployment Act and the Federal Career Intern Program. Another 36 percent were hired under other exceptions, such as the Presidential Management Fellows program and direct-hire authority.

"There is a role for these exceptions, but their extensive use may have implications for the future and agencies need to be aware of this when they create their recruitment strategies," MSPB Chairman Neil McPhie said.

MSPB also surveyed more than 4,000 supervisors of new hires to gauge how and why various hiring authorities were used. The responses indicated significant confusion. For example, 36 percent of supervisors involved in the hiring process did not recognize that they had accepted applications under a specific hiring authority, with the authorities used often being "a product of convenience or coincidence rather than the result of a thoughtful or deliberate choice to effectively use the most appropriate hiring authority," MSPB found.

Furthermore, confusion contributed to misunderstandings about the length of new hires' probationary periods, potentially hampering effective use of that time to evaluate new employees. Forty-three percent of supervisors involved in hiring also said they were not made aware of the training or assessment policies associated with specific hiring authorities.

MSPB found that supervisors who were involved in hiring decisions were more satisfied with the individual hired than those supervisors who were not. But 44 percent of supervisors indicated they were not involved in the hiring process.

John Crum, acting director of MSPB's Office of Policy and Evaluation, said in June that agencies should not give up on the traditional competitive process, because government needs the best people to meet its mission. But equally important, he said, is credibility to the public.

"We have a different standard than the average private sector company," he said. "If the public thinks we're targeting specific groups or hiring someone's cousin, that undermines our credibility and the perception of the work we perform."

MSPB recommended that agencies educate supervisors about special hiring authorities and involve them in recruitment and hiring decisions. The report encouraged agencies to develop well-rounded recruitment strategies so all segments of society are represented in the federal workforce.

"Extensive use of any authority that results in a disproportionate workforce should be balanced with other authorities to ensure that a pattern does not develop of hiring from only select groups," the report said.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, on Tuesday urged the Office of Personnel Management to do more to ensure that competitive hiring practices are reestablished as the norm, especially since 60 percent of the federal workforce becomes eligible to retire during the next decade.

"The federal government is supposed to be a model employer with hiring practices that focus solely on merit principles," she said, "but this report demonstrates that the foundation of the merit principles established more than 125 years ago that ended the patronage system is under siege."

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