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Federal Agencies Are Increasingly Avoiding Normal Hiring Procedures to Bring On New Staff Quickly

Policymakers should resolve a conflict in how direct hiring is being used, reviewing agency says.

Federal agencies are using special, quicker mechanisms to hire a growing proportion of their workforces, leaving in question processes embedded in civil service laws to ensure fairness and equity in the government onboarding process.  

Agencies in 2018 used direct hiring authority for 27% of all new employees onboarded through a competitive process, up from about 5% just 10 years earlier, the Merit Systems Protection Board said in a report released Monday. Congress authorized the special mechanism in 2002 for positions with critical needs or severe shortages. It allows agencies receiving approval from the Office of Personnel Management to skip the typically required formal rating of applicants and use of veterans’ preference. 

Typically, agencies request direct hiring authority for certain positions from OPM, but the HR agency can also issue governmentwide preapproval for specific job categories. Preapproval is currently in effect for cybersecurity, STEM, medical, IT, Iraqi reconstruction and veterinary medical officer positions. Agencies onboarded nearly 30,000 employees using direct hiring in fiscal 2018, the most recent data MSPB had available, a 460% increase from a decade prior.  

“This rapid growth is a clear indicator of frustration with the results of current competitive service hiring procedures,” MSPB wrote in the report.  

The average time-to-hire in the federal government was 106 days as of fiscal 2017, having increased for five consecutive years. 

The Defense Department used direct hire authorities the most of any federal agency, followed by the departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security. Nursing was the most common occupation for which agencies used the mechanism in five years of the most recent data, followed by IT management. The authorities tended to be used most often for higher-grade positions. 

In addition to speedier hiring, federal human resources personnel said advantages of the initiative include more targeted recruiting, more satisfied employees and at least comparable results in terms of race, gender and ethnicity. A key difference between regular and direct hiring is a diminished emphasis on the hiring of former military personnel, who typically receive preference in the recruiting process. Veterans made up just 22% of direct hires between fiscal years 2014 and 2018, compared to 50% of all other competitive hires. 

MSPB noted a fundamental conflict in the use of direct hiring, namely whether agencies should use it to get better candidates or merely more applicants in the door quickly. According to OPM guidance, agencies are supposed to make selections of anyone who meets a minimum level of qualification based on the order in which the applications were received, rather than who is the most qualified. 

“There are indications,” MSPB noted, “that agencies may be going beyond that intent by expanding recruitment, implementing additional assessments, and doing more to draw distinctions among applicants.”

Hiring managers reported satisfaction with direct hiring because it is allowing them to circumvent normal hiring restrictions to hire better-qualified candidates, rather than simply using the authority to hire workers more quickly. OPM officials told MSPB, however, that direct hiring should only be used in “emergency or extraordinary circumstances” so dire that the agency needs to hire any qualified candidate “as quickly as they are identified.” 

“This suggests that OPM and hiring officials may have a different understanding of the role direct hire should play in hiring decisions,” MSPB said. 

The agency said federal policymakers need to answer a question about the future of the authority: Should direct hiring be used to find higher quality candidates, rather than just more of them? Absent further direction, agencies will likely continue to replace normal hiring procedures baked into civil service laws with the quicker alternative. Without specific and intentional review, direct hiring could “proliferate and replace merit-based hiring processes, such as competitive examining, with little forethought or planning,” MSPB said. 

Good government groups, such as the Partnership for Public Service and the National Academy of Public Administration, have long bemoaned the lengthy federal hiring process and called for making it easier for agencies to employ direct hiring. 

The means by which agencies can use authorities to hire more quickly are rapidly increasing. Several agencies have received special direct hiring authorities outside the normal OPM process, including the Defense Department’s 20 different mechanisms just in the last decade. Only about 40% of recent direct hires were brought on through the governmentwide, OPM-approved option, with the rest resulting from more specialized, congressionally approved authorities.

While more HR offices reported a familiarity with and planning around direct hiring, MSPB called on OPM to deliver “more consistent communication and messaging” to help agencies understand the benefits and purpose of the mechanism.