Forum participants see ‘urgency’ in hiring reform

By Alyssa Rosenberg

October 28, 2009

Federal management officials, labor leaders, lawmakers and outside experts gathered in Washington on Wednesday for a forum on hiring and recruitment in the federal government that could provide a template for reforms Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry says he hopes to present to President Obama by the end of the year.

"There was clearly in the room a sense of urgency, and I share that sense of urgency," Berry said.

Berry declined to discuss the specifics of the proposals the forum participants considered, though he did say he was intrigued by the comments of private sector representatives, who said some of their senior leaders spend at least four hours a week actively recruiting new employees. Berry said he would take the reports from the day's session to an interagency working group within OPM that is focusing on hiring issues.

Though the discussion was mostly confined to questions of hiring and recruitment, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who attended the forum, said in a statement that pay reform also was necessary.

"The General Schedule…has served us well for decades. But today, it only covers about 60 percent of our people," Hoyer said. "It might last another five years, but it is not the pay system for the next generation. We owe it to the next generation of federal employees to build a new one."

The session was off the record and closed to the media. David Ellwood, dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, which organized the forum, said the decision to conduct the event behind closed doors was designed to foster a candid discussion among the high-level participants. Attendees at the day-long session included House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Jeff Zients, President Obama's chief performance officer, and the presidents of the Senior Executives Association, the Federal Managers Association, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union.

Darryl Perkinson, FMA's president, said the meeting was a "very good beginning" and that he had never seen the Office of Management and Budget so engaged on federal personnel issues. He cautioned that the federal government needed a cultural shift in addition to different hiring policies, including being willing to hire more promising candidates than planned if a search turned up an unexpected number of excellent applicants.

John Gage, president of AFGE, said he thought the conversation on personnel should not end with hiring and recruitment, even though he said there is significant agreement that the hiring process should be faster and managers should be more involved in it.

"Hiring and recruitment are not necessarily the be-all, end-all of our problem," Gage said. "Really developing our people once we get them in is even more critical."

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, cautioned that in the rush to simplify hiring, reformers should not throw out or circumvent programs that support merit system principles, including veterans' preference and open competition.

"Simplifying the federal hiring process -- as useful as that would be -- is insufficient to counter the use of such mechanisms as the Federal Career Intern Program, which undercut merit system principles and erode employee morale," she said.

By Alyssa Rosenberg

October 28, 2009