Federal agency leadership will soon be able to declare special hiring authorities for critical need or severe staff shortages in IT positions under a rule submitted by the Office of Personnel Management April 3.

A May 2018 executive order that elevated the role of chief information officers at government agencies also required that OPM establish a regulation allowing agency heads to declare a direct hiring authority for IT positions, should that agency meet the requirements of critical need of severe shortage.

OPM proposed the rule change, which would delegate an authority that is currently exclusive to OPM, in October 2018.

In order to institute a direct hire authority, agency heads must provide documentation of certain requirements:

  • The results of workforce planning and analysis;
  • Employment trends including the local or national labor market;
  • The existence of nationwide or geographic skills shortages;
  • Agency efforts, including recruitment initiatives, use of other appointing authorities and flexibilities, training and development programs tailored to the position(s), and an explanation of why these recruitment and training efforts have not been sufficient;
  • The availability and quality of candidates;
  • The desirability of the geographic location of the position(s);
  • The desirability of the duties and/or work environment associated with the position(s); and
  • Other pertinent information, such as selective placement factors or other special requirements of the position, as well as agency use of hiring flexibilities such as recruitment or retention allowances or special salary rates.

That information must then be provided to OPM within 10 business days of the direct hire authority’s approval by the agency head.

Employees that are hired under such an authority would be able to work for a term of one to four years, with the option to extend that position for another four years if the direct hiring authority is still in effect. But the direct-hired employee would not be allowed to remain for more than eight years and could not be moved into another, non-IT position after that period.

Comments on the October proposed rule noted that it could potentially result in increased cronyism, as direct hire is not subject to the normal rules of competitive selection, but also that risking such behavior was an acceptable opportunity cost for getting sorely needed IT personnel into the government.

As part of the final rule, OPM said that it would update its direct hire authority guidance to emphasize the need for an objective hiring process, offer training courses on how to use the authority and review agency use of the authority through required reporting.

Other comments questioned whether veterans preference would be lost in the press to get IT professionals into government positions.

“Direct hire authority is often nothing more than a workaround for statutory veterans’ preference rights. At a minimum, there should be an objective and impartial review of the facts supporting a direct hire authority, and having each agency be its own judge and jury, as OPM is proposing, is fraught with problems,” one commenter wrote to OPM.

“In my agency, we get many qualified applicants for IT jobs, so there is no shortage of good candidates. We are going to get a lot of pressure to do direct hire just to avoid having to hire well-qualified veterans. This is bad for veterans and bad for civil service. Maybe agencies should have to show their veterans hiring numbers are good before they can use the direct hire.”

Once again, OPM said that its ability to monitor direct hire authorities issued by other agencies would ensure that the authority is being used for actual IT need, and not a workaround of veterans’ preference.

Agencies will be able to begin exercising the new authority May 3, 2019.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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