Sarbanes 'excited' to reform federal hiring

Thursday - 9/29/2011, 4:45pm EDT

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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When it comes to promises to streamline the federal hiring process, some people say they've seen this movie before.

Harvard Kennedy School lecturer Elaine Kamarck said when she served in the White House under President Bill Clinton, the administration tried to make federal hiring easier and faster, but failed.

"Why did we fail? Because we went to Congress and discovered something interesting about Congress: Nobody cares," she said at a Brookings Institution event Wednesday on federal hiring.

But now, with nearly half of all federal employees eligible to retire in the next decade, some lawmakers say that changing the hiring process makes a lot of sense.

"I find this kind of undertaking quite exciting," said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) in an interview with Federal News Radio. "If you do it well, you're talking about making the federal government competitive in recruiting best and the brightest."

Sarbanes and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) proposed legislation to codify many of the Obama administration's hiring reform ideas. They would require agencies to fill vacancies in 80 days. Right now, agencies sometimes take up to 200 days.

"There are as many as 45 different handoffs that can happen between various people in the chain of command, different managers and HR specialists and so forth," Sarbanes said. "We think that some of that process can be consolidated without sacrificing the due diligence that an agency wants to have in terms of hiring."

Sarbanes said many of those steps may be unnecessary habits. The legislation would require agencies to involve hiring managers in the entire process to ensure that it is as efficient as possible and tailored to the manager's needs.

"Getting that thinking earlier in the process results in better choices down the line, but it can also help to reduce the time it takes to make these decisions," he said.

That's key to attracting candidates who also are considering private sector jobs.

"These are very difficult, and in many instances, very sophisticated jobs in these federal agencies and you want to make sure that you've got the best folks coming into the workplace," he said. "If it's going to take them 200 days before they know the answer to whether they'll be hired, by that time they'll be long gone."

The Obama administration's hiring reform initiative has shaved 15 percent off of the hiring process time, Office of Personnel Management director John Berry said Wednesday at the Brookings Institution event. Job descriptions that used to be 72 pages long now are more like five pages.

"We want to make sure that those reforms are there for the long haul and that agencies really say, 'This is something that we have to do,'" Sarbanes said. "This is a commitment we need to make for the long term."

Eight Democrats — Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), and Reps. Jim Moran (D-Va.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) — have cosponsored the legislation.

Sarbanes said he expects to attract Republican support eventually, but the partisan bitterness on Capitol Hill has kept them away.

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