OPM Is Giving CIOs More Direct Hiring Authority But Plans To Keep A Watchful Eye

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The administration has been gathering feedback on giving agency CIOs more power over direct hiring authorities and plans to publish the final rule soon.

Hiring new federal employees is an arduous, drawn-out process designed to be risk-averse. But in critical areas like IT modernization, the need to onboard qualified talent in a timely manner has moved the administration to issue new direct hiring authorities to agency technology leaders.

Wednesday, the administration will officially release the final rule delegating the determination of whether there is a critical shortage and the issuance of the direct hiring authority to agency chief information officers.

The federal IT workforce is aging rapidly, with 60-year-old technology employees outnumbering the under-30 crowd by 4.6 to 1, according to a Nextgov analysis. Under the current structure, Office of Personnel Management officials determine whether there is a “severe shortage of candidates or a critical hiring need” at a given agency, after which the department issues a direct hiring authority to correct the imbalance.

Under an executive order issued last May, agency CIOs were to be given responsibility to determine the need while OPM would issue the hiring authority. In the final rule set to be published, all of that responsibility will fall on agency CIOs.

“The intended effect of this change is to enable chief information officers to hire urgently needed IT professionals more quickly,” the rule states.

Since publishing the proposed rule in October, OPM received seven “sets of comments,” most raising concerns about potential abuse.

One such comment noted expedited hiring could lead to cronyism, though the commenter said that was “an acceptable opportunity cost of a direct hire authority.” In the final rule, OPM countered that the direct hire authority does not negate other standing federal employment and promotion guidelines.

“The use of the authority is subject to merit system principles, which include requirements that selection and advancement be determined solely on the basis of relative ability, knowledge and skills, regardless of the hiring authority used to fill a position,” the document states. “Further, OPM contends that the opportunity cost for cronyism, favoritism and nepotism is not only the highest cost that a government can pay, but is fundamentally at odds with civil service law.”

OPM officials plan to cover this potential problem by updating the direct hiring authority guidance, offering interactive training sessions for hiring managers and tracking hiring decisions using this authority. For the latter, OPM will require agency leads to report when and how the hiring authority is being used.

Furthermore, OPM withholds the right to rescind the hiring authority if officials deem it is being misused.

“OPM will monitor agencies’ use of DHA under this authority and may terminate or modify any DHA if OPM finds the basis on which such DHA was granted no longer exists, or when an agency has used an authority improperly,” the document states in response to another commenter.

OPM officials also considered dropping the tenure limits—a four-year term with the potential for an additional four years at the hiring manager’s discretion—however decided to keep that provision in the final rule.

Despite the concerns raised, OPM officials are opting not to make any changes to the draft for the final rule.

The new rule will officially go into effect 30 days from publication in the Federal Register, or May 3.