Legislative reforms could give feds 'key flexibilities'
Federal managers will need far greater flexibility to recruit, hire and retain — or remove — employees if agencies are to weather both increased demands for national security and the "human capital crisis" posed by an aging federal workforce, some of the government's chief human resource executives told Congress recently.
"The events of Sept. 11 demonstrated that the federal government must have effective management tools in place to effectively respond to threats to our national security," said Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James, testifying at a hearing held by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's International Security, Proliferation and Federal Services Subcommittee March 18.
The subcommittee is currently considering four legislative proposals to change the management of the federal workforce.
In her testimony, James listed what she called "key flexibilities" for reforming federal management, including:
* Establishing a permanent voluntary separation incentive authority.
* Improving the existing recruitment and retention incentives.
* Providing for greater hiring flexibility in areas with a shortage of candidates.
* Eliminating the requirement for re- certifying career senior executives every three years, and other senior executive initiatives.
* Streamlining the process for testing innovative human resources concepts.
Giving managers the authority to hire "quickly and directly" in cases where they have a critical need to fill a position is also crucial, James said.
OPM proposes to allow managers to go outside the so-called rule of three — where candidates are ranked according to skills and only the top three names on the list are passed on to the hiring manager. Instead, an agency would be allowed to divide job applicants into "quality categories," instead of ranking them by discrete scores, and the hiring manager would have the authority to hire any applicant within the highest quality grouping, James testified.
At the same hearing, Comptroller General David Walker released a draft of a new model for strategic workforce management in the federal government, developed by the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm.
GAO's new plan — which offers agencies principles and management tools to address the needs of the changing federal workforce — will likely replace the Office of Management and Budget's management score card, James said.
The new plan will be finalized in the next few months. "What you'll probably end up with is the GAO model, and [OPM] may add one or two things that we think are important. We're trying to reach consensus on that in the interest of not confusing the federal workforce," she said.
Although both James and Walker emphasized the need to instill in government management circles the broad management principles that have long governed the private sector, representatives of the two largest federal em.ployee unions said reform will not be successful unless the administration boosts federal pay scales and drops its outsourcing quotas.
"The idea of authorizing bonuses of up to 100 percent of salary over four years [as proposed in two of the bills, S. 1612 and 1639] may help recruit an information technology specialist to spend four years in a federal agency, but it will not solve the problem of building in-house federal agency IT infrastructure, institutional knowledge and dedication to the public interest," testified Bobby Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
"Would you seriously consider employment with the federal government, knowing your job may be contracted out from under you for no reason other than to meet an arbitrary number?" asked Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "Any prospective employee is going to be looking for at least a minimum level of job security, [and the administration's outsourcing proposals] fly in the face of that."
Though they welcomed congressional attention to workforce issues at a March 12 hearing on one of the four bills, the Homeland Security Federal Workforce Act, executives for the government's top law enforcement and national security agencies told the subcommittee that hiring IT professionals and language experts is a higher priority.
The FBI expects to hire approximately 960 new agents this year, with 20 percent having backgrounds in computer science and IT and 20 percent with proficiency in such languages as Arabic, Farsi, Pashtu and Urdu, said Sheri Farrar, assistant director of the FBI's administrative services division.
"For the FBI, the No. 1 priority for skills...across all investigative and supporting programs is that of computer and information technology literacy. This is true regardless of what an individual's educational, primary skill set and experience base is," Farrar said.
It would be simpler to modify existing programs, such as the current student loan repayment program and the Scholarship for Service program, than to create new ones, said Ruth Whiteside, acting director general of the Foreign Service and director of human resources for the State Department.
Instead, Congress should pass the administration's managerial flexibility proposals, Whiteside said. "We are already using to great effect available recruitment and retention incentives; in fact, OPM has cited our IT recruitment and retention program as a 'best practice,' " she added.
The following four bills are currently under consideration by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's International Security, Proliferation and Federal Services Subcommittee:
* S. 1603, the Federal Human Capital Act of 2001. Establishes the position of Chief Human Capital Officer in certain federal agencies.
* S. 1800, the Homeland Security Federal Workforce Act. Provides an enhanced student loan repayment program and a "national security corps" to rotate midlevel federal employees among national security agencies.
* S. 1612, the Managerial Flexibility Act of 2001. Provides new tools and authority for federal managers.
* S. 1639, the Federal Employment Management Reform Act of 2001. Similar to S. 1612 in that it revises and enhances authority for federal managers.
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