GAO: Special hiring authority not a free pass

Wednesday - 7/18/2012, 6:11am EDT

By Esther Carey
Special to Federal News Radio

Hiring top-notch scientists is necessary to the mission of the Health and Human Services Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, but these departments need to properly manage their special hiring authority to bring on these experts, says a Government Accountability Office report released July 6.

HHS has steadily increased its use of Title 42 in hiring since 2006 in order to compete with the private sector. The report found that most of these employees worked in the divisions of the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One-quarter of employees at NIH now operate under this special hiring authority, the report said.

HHS lacks reliable data needed to best oversee the process, GAO stated. This is because information regarding the particular section of Title 42, which the agency uses, is not consistently recorded in the personnel systems. Also, HHS often failed to follow Title 42 instructions requiring hiring managers to first attempt to fill positions without using higher pay incentives.

Francis Collins, director of NIH, told a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health last month that his agency was in the process of improving specifications regarding the use of this special hiring authority.

GAO provided three recommendations for HHS:

  • Require designation of the section used from Title 42 in the personnel system.

  • Document fulfillment of other requirements involved in hiring under Title 42 such as attempts to hire using regular methods

  • Ensure documentation of the basis for employee compensation through agencywide policy.

HHS agreed with each of GAO's suggestions, and GAO reported that the agency's ongoing and proposed action would probably improve the management of Title 42 authority.

EPA ethics

The report identified fewer Title 42 employees at EPA and said its hiring practices were in line with the proper guidelines. The challenge for EPA was in ensuring that such employees continued to meet ethics requirements after being hired. GAO reviewed 10 cases of Title 42 employees at EPA, and in two cases the agency failed to follow up with appointees regarding potential conflicts of financial interest.

Specifically, it was unclear who should do the job of ensuring that new hires sold stock in companies that could pose an issue. In both cases, the employee agreed to meet certain conditions before being hired, but later routine examinations discovered that they had failed to carry through on their promises.

GAO recommended EPA improve enforcement of ethics requirements by having Title 42 employees provide proof of compliance to hiring ethics agreements. EPA disagreed with the GAO, based on the minimal nature of the problems the report cited. The agency noted that it planned to develop response outlines regarding issues, but the GAO reported that it did not provide a firm date for implementation.

Esther Carey is an intern at Federal News Radio.

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