Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said Wednesday that he is introducing legislation to reform the federal government’s internship programs and writing a bill to expand agencies’ metrics regarding telework following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Members of a House panel on Wednesday discussed how the government can leverage programs like internships and telework at federal agencies to attract a new generation of federal employees to enter public service.
At a hearing hosted by the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s subcommittee on government operations entitled the “Future of Federal Work,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., announced that he is introducing legislation that would reform internship programs across the federal government and require agencies to pay their interns.
“The federal government provides only 4,000 internships at any given time, and even those individuals struggle to move into federal service after the culmination of their internship,” he said. “Simply put, individuals graduating from top schools are not attracted to federal service, and neither are the interns who intern for the federal government, and we need to change that. The Next Generation of Federal Employees Act codifies existing successful internship programs and brings uniformity and best practices to other federal internships across the government.”
Connolly said the bill will also require the Office of Personnel Management to develop an internship and fellowship center, as well as a unified website where agencies and students can navigate the internship application process. Paying interns will afford them job protections they do not currently enjoy, he said.
“Paying interns ensures these opportunities are not only available to students whose parents can afford for them to work for federal agencies without pay, but it also ensures they have protections against discrimination and harassment,” he said.
Connolly also said he is in the process of drafting legislation both to encourage continued use of telework and remote work flexibilities following the COVID-19 pandemic as well as to enhance the metrics at agencies’ disposal to measure telework usage and the performance of employees working remotely.
Much of Wednesday’s discussion centered on telework and another bill by Connolly that would implement some recommendations from the National Academy of Public Administration on how to reform OPM to become a 21st century leader in human capital management. That bill, among other things, would insulate OPM’s leadership from political interference by requiring the president to nominate an OPM director without regard to his or her partisan affiliation and establish additional positions in that agency as available only to career employees.
“We need a revitalized and forward-thinking OPM, and we are encouraged by Director [Kiran] Ahuja’s leadership and OPM’s initial response to the NAPA report,” said Ken Thomas, national president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. “We urge OPM to press forward on implementation [of the report’s recommendations] and we urge this committee and Congress to provide support when needed.”
Michelle Amante, vice president of federal workforce programs at the Partnership for Public Service, said agencies need to apply the lessons of the pandemic to ingrain workplace flexibilities in their culture, arguing that younger employees increasingly are looking for jobs that allow them to telework or have flexible schedules.
“We must institutionalize the positive changes of the pandemic like flexible schedules and hybrid work environments,” she said. “We recognize there are some jobs that can’t be performed remotely, but we advocate for agencies to focus on outcomes and mission achievements when determining the best course of action. In many cases, it’s beneficial to have remote workers since agencies can access untapped talent in new locations and expand diversity.”
Republicans on the committee were less convinced of the long-term benefits of telework, pointing to some agencies’ struggles early in the pandemic to build up the technological infrastructure to handle maximum telework.
“The Biden administration has made it clear that it wants expanded telework and remote work to become a permanent part of the federal landscape, and they use practices of the private sector and need to recruit as the rationale, but that in itself is not adequate,” said Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., ranking member of the subcommittee. “I don’t think that by itself is a safe path to run down, because there are differences between the private sector and federal agencies, and we need to keep these in mind. It’s important to understand that difference and to ensure the American people, who deserve and expect certain services, are kept as the priority and focus.”
Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., asked Andrew Biggs, a senior fellow at the right-leaning think tank the American Enterprise Institute, about whether more needs to be done to ensure that the next generation of federal employees is more accountable to political leaders.
“We’re focusing today on recruiting, innovating and improving the federal workforce, but a more pressing and important question is whether the fourth branch—the bureaucracy—has grown too big, and I think the answer is yes,” Rep. Biggs said. “[Federal] bureaucrats constantly undermine elected officials and presidents of both parties, and these bureaucrats are not held accountable for circumventing the will of the American people because there’s no direct accountability to them . . . How would making all executive branch employee at-will employees who serve at the pleasure of the president allow for more accountability in the federal bureaucracy?”
In January, Rep. Biggs was among the Republican lawmakers who voted to object to the certification of the results of the presidential election in two states. Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute stopped short of endorsing his similarly named questioner’s proposal to make federal workers at-will employees.
“I will say that during my time at a federal agency, the federal employees at the Social Security Administration were extremely professional,” he said. “They did everything you asked and would go above and beyond. I agree that we don’t want employees undermining the agenda of elected officials, but at the same time, in my experience they were very professional . . . We don’t want patronage appointments, and at the same time an administration should have the ability to put in political leadership to carry out the policies they were elected to do, so I think we need to have some middle ground here, and everyone has to be cognizant of what their role is.”