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Next Target: Fast-Track Hiring Programs!

Mike Causey | Federal News Radio

January 04, 2010

Groups representing federal and postal workers and retirees have delivered the goods as never before. This year, 2009, will go down in the books as as-good-as-it-gets.

The new Defense Authorization Act contains an array of eye-popping new benefits for federal workers in both major retirement systems, retirees and former feds who want to make a comeback in government.

The back-stage lobbying and deals that were cut between members of Congress, White House staff, the Office of Personnel Management and unions/management/retiree groups could provide background material for a TV series based on a civil service version of Mission Impossible.

It is hard to imagine how the pro-fed groups could have done any better, or gotten more for their members (and non-members) than they did this year.

That said, the question is: what’s next?

The federal pay raise is set in stone. It will be 2 percent (and change based on locality adjustments.) While 2 percent is one of the lowest raises in years (and below the 3.4 percent for members of the uniformed military services) it is 100 percent more than many nonfederal workers will be getting next year.

Federal unions in particular want to make sure that the National Security Personnel System isn’t somehow revised and revamped. Congress made it pretty clear that it wants the NSPS to go away. And it wants the 200,000 people under it returned to the regular civil service salary, grade and pay raise system.

But, according to the unions, there is another threat to the merit system and to thousands of new and mid-career feds who want to get ahead. The target: various special-hire programs that permit agencies to bring people into government without going through normal channels, or following veterans preference rules, putting them in permanent, fast-tracked government jobs.

Officials of the American Federation of Government Employees have long warned that many special hiring programs are used to skirt merit-system hiring rules and to jump overqualified, long-time feds who are stuck in the promotion pipeline.

Earlier this week the Harvard Kennedy School of Government held a closed-door, off-the-record session with a group of good-government advocates. They included people from unions, professional groups, academics and representatives of the Obama administration. One participant described it as a “very frank, compelling conversation” that “got ideas incubating and percolating.” He said the goal was to “actually get things done” and not just talk about issues and problems.

One of the participants, Colleen M. Kelley, said her National Treasury Employees Union wants to help the administration make public service better. On the key issue of hiring, Kelley warned that the call to speed up and simplify the hiring process has its downside. “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 she and other critics say both “undercut merit system principles and erode employee morale.”

Finding a balance between the special hiring programs and basic merit system practices won’t be easy. And maybe “they” (whoever they are) won’t even try. But it would delight many career feds, who entered the traditional way, to know they had a fighting chance to get ahead.

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