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Data shows decline in Outstanding Scholar hires

Data shows decline in Outstanding Scholar hires

ksaldarini@govexec.com

The percentage of federal employees hired as Outstanding Scholars has dropped slightly in the past year and a half, but agencies continue to rely heavily on the program to fill job vacancies, according to recent data from the Office of Personnel Management.

The Outstanding Scholar hiring program was created in 1981 as part of a consent decree in federal court settling a lawsuit that challenged the use of a written test, the Professional and Administrative Career Examination (PACE), for federal hiring. PACE was found to hurt the chances of African-American and Hispanic job applicants. The Oustanding Scholar program was intended to help the government hire more minorities for certain jobs.

But by 1996, 83 percent of Outstanding Scholar hires were white, 11 percent were African American and 6 percent were Hispanic. Minority hires under the program increased slightly by the first six months of 1999; 80 percent of Outstanding Scholar hires were white, 13 percent were African American and 7 percent were Hispanic.

According to the Merit Systems Protection Board, the program is no longer needed to support diverse hiring practices and its use contradicts merit principles.

In its January report, "Restoring Merit to Federal Hiring," MSPB said agencies often misuse their Outstanding Scholar appointment authority. While the original intent of the program was to increase minority hiring, white women are the ones who benefit most from it, the report said.

The Office of Personnel Management and some other groups objected strongly to the report, a reaction MSPB expected.

"Because the programs were created for a noble purpose, people believe that backing away from the programs means we're backing away from that purpose. But that's not the case at all," said John Palguta, director of policy and evaluation at MSPB.

Today, African Americans are well represented at the entry level positions that the consent decree was designed to address, and the federal government's Hispanic representation is above its representation in the civilian workforce, Palguta said. The Outstanding Scholar program was not designed to address under-representation at the Senior Executive Service level, where minorities are under-represented, he said.

"I understand the emotional reaction, but the fact remains, the environment is very different today than it was 20 years ago. We should be focusing on where we still need to go in terms of internal promotions, employee development, and providing opportunities to assume higher level positions," Palguta said.

In the past, OPM has acknowledged that the program didn't always serve its intended purpose. On July 13, 1998, Carol Okin, OPM's director of oversight, issued a memo to all directors of personnel expressing concern that agencies were misusing their Outstanding Scholar hiring authority.

"Over the years, the Office of Personnel Management has been monitoring this situation with growing concern," Okin said in the memo. "The data reveal that, contrary to the original intent of the Luevano Consent Decree, the authority is increasingly being used as the primary hiring vehicle for GS-5 and GS-7 administrative and professional positions."

Since 1997, Outstanding scholar hires have dropped from almost 40 percent to about 30 percent of all federal appointments, according to OPM's latest figures.

"That is some modest progress, but it is still almost a third of all hires," Palguta said. "The purpose [of the program] has just been lost for most managers. They just know it's a great way to hire people quickly."

As a legal consent decree, the Outstanding Scholar program's fate will eventually be decided by the Justice Department.

How federal employees are hired in positions covered by the consent decree:

Type of hire Jan-Dec. '97 Jan-Dec. '98 Jan-June '99
Outstanding Scholar 39.8% 35.7% 30%
Student 16.6% 16.2% 22%
Competitive Examining 16.2% 25.1% 33.6%
Bilingual/Bicultural 9.2% 5% 3.7%
Veterans Readjustment Appointment 18.3% 18.1% 10.8%

(Source: Office of Personnel Management. Figures are in calendar years. Data for January to June 1999 is most recent available.)