Should Political Appointees Be Held Accountable for Hiring Top Talent?

Lawmakers, panelists revisit the many layers of the broken federal hiring system Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

Political appointees should be held accountable for hiring and managing employees within their agencies, the head of a good government nonprofit said on Tuesday.

“One of the interesting phenomena [in government] is that we do have a performance management system for the career workforce, not for those 4,000 politicals,” Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, told Senate lawmakers during a roundtable discussion of USAJOBS, the government’s online warehouse of job vacancies. “Performance plans should also hold them accountable for their stewardship of the organizations that they are running, including their ability to recruit and retain the very best talent.”

As an example, Stier referred to a provision in draft legislation under consideration by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee that would require annual performance plans for VA political appointees, similar to the reviews senior executives undergo. “Why shouldn’t that be across all of government?” Stier asked.

The head of the Partnership also said hiring managers “ought to be held accountable for actually engaging in the hiring process.” He singled out the Government Accountability Office as an example of an agency that does “a phenomenal job of holding their talent responsible for bringing in new talent,” and said that idea should be “applied more generally across the federal environment.”

Tuesday’s roundtable held by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management was supposed to focus on improving the technology and navigation of USAJOBS, which the Office of Personnel Management has been overhauling since 2011. But the conversation turned mostly into a discussion about the federal government’s complicated and broken federal hiring process.

USAJOBS, despite some improvements, is still difficult to navigate and lacks sophisticated search capabilities to help applicants find positions that meet their interests and qualifications. And as Stier put it, the site in many respects is just the “front door to a crumbling edifice.”

Recruiting and hiring tools, including veterans’ preference, Pathways (for students and recent graduates), and the prestigious Presidential Management Fellows program, are innovative. But they’ve become encased in layers of complicated rules that most hiring managers and even some HR staff don’t understand or use properly. Job descriptions are lengthy, and many of them are barely comprehensible, at least to the uninitiated – a fact that Subcommittee Chairman James Lankford, R-Okla., emphasized during Tuesday’s discussion. Agencies are supposed to get new hires on board within 80 days, but for some jobs, the reality is that it can take several months.

“To regain their lost recruiting edge, agencies must reestablish crucial relationships with entities that are the best pipeline of candidates for their mission – particularly to recruit millennials,” said Linda Brooks Rix, president and co-chief executive officer of Avue Technologies Corp. “Each agency needs its own recruiting website, social media outreach strategy, and direct online application process that bypasses USAJOBS.”

Avue, which competes with OPM’s HR software products and services, offers guidance on hiring, job classification and other HR business practices to agencies.

Rix, who used to work at OPM, said there has been a loss of HR expertise in the federal government. “There are 164 different appointing authorities, and you see this very great dependence on a few,” she said. 

Mark Reinhold, OPM’s associate director for employee services and chief human capital officer, said the agency has been talking to people across the country about how to improve USAJOBS. One effort they are pilot-testing now is resume-mining, where certain key words can help hiring managers and HR professionals across government find applicants within the overall USAJOBS candidate pool who might be a good fit for jobs in their agencies.

Through its “hiring excellence” campaign launched this year, OPM is trying to educate HR staff and hiring management about hiring and pay flexibilities.

“One thing that continually surprises me is the extent to which folks don’t know about the many flexibilities that are already available at their disposal,” said Reinhold. “There are many disconnects between local HR and headquarters and between HR and managers, so part of what we are trying to do is be real clear about the wide range of things that can already be done,” including, for instance, special hiring authority and special pay rates, he said.

OPM also needs to publish rules to help agencies implement the 2015 Competitive Service Act, signed into law in February. The law allows agencies to collaborate on competitive service certificates when looking to fill a position in the same occupational series and within a similar grade level. The goal is to cut red tape when it comes to assessing candidates so people are hired faster. The agency is working on interim regulations, and several observers, including former Obama administration official Shelley Metzenbaum of the Volcker Alliance, have called on OPM to move quickly to help agencies take advantage of the new flexibility as soon as possible.

Reinhold agreed that OPM needs to be held accountable for its part in drafting the regulations, but also noted that it will be a “cultural change at the agency level.”

Panelists and lawmakers seemed to agree that streamlining federal hiring, while simultaneously preserving fairness and attracting talented employees, is no easy feat.  

“I think we just scratched the surface of this, which is frustrating for me,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who praised OPM for its hard work, but also said the agency should be more “dynamic” in its role as a recruiter of talent.

“The federal government should be the employer of choice,” she said. “This is working for the people of our country. What greater mission could you have?”