OPM offers flex for Harvey hiring

The Office of Personnel Management reminded agencies that there are exceptions in place to fast-track hiring of critical need positions, despite the federal hiring slowdown.

Harvey Houston flood michelmond / Shutterstock.com

An emergency vehicle drives through a flooded road in Houston. (Photo credit: michelmond/Shutterstock)

As government continues to respond to devastating floods from Hurricane Harvey, the Office of Personnel Management reminded agencies that there are exceptions in place to fast-track hiring of critical-need positions, despite the federal hiring slowdown.

An Aug. 27 posting from OPM alerted agencies that direct-hire authorities exist for agencies making temporary appointments, obtaining help from private-sector staffing services, as well as rapidly onboarding certain categories of medical professionals and IT and cybersecurity positions. OPM also reminded agencies that retirees can be brought back if needed without the usual red tape for appointments lasting a year.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has 1,800 employees deployed as part of Harvey response, including 900 urban search and rescue workers in south Texas. The agency also deployed 65 personnel and 10 mobile office vehicles as part of a mobile response program that provides video and voice communications services to first responders. FEMA also said that an additional 341 employees from the Department of Homeland Security will be joining the response as part of the DHS "surge capacity force."

FEMA's chief Brock Long brings his emergency management experience to the Harvey response. He led the state emergency management agency in Alabama and was a program manager for hurricane response for FEMA.

But farther down the chain, the Trump administration has been slower than its predecessors to staff leadership posts.

To date, Trump has submitted 277 nominations, 124 of which have been confirmed and eight failed, according to the count of the Partnership for Public Service.

While the Senate has, on average, taken 54 days to confirm Trump's nominees -- a longer duration than that for every president since George H.W. Bush -- the protracted confirmations are not the primary culprit behind the glacial government staffing.

Even if all his nominees to date had been confirmed, Trump would still lag behind his predecessors.

By comparison, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Trump's two most recent predecessors, respectively had made 433 and 414 nominations by the August recess, of which 310 and 294 had been confirmed.

People may say "so what" to the news of the slow pace of subcabinet appointments, but there is a practical impact, said Mallory Barg Bulman, vice-president of the Partnership's Research and Evaluation team.

"I think we're experiencing one of the so-whats right now [with] Hurricane Harvey and the response effort that's taking place.... When the nation is facing this kind of disaster, you need leaders in place," she said.

Among these unfilled slots are various emergency response officials, national and nuclear security positions, several cabinet-agency CIOs as well as a permanent secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and a federal CIO.

FEMA itself lacks two immediate deputies, which were nominated shortly before the August recess and have not been confirmed.

It's not just the FEMA vacancies that can impact emergency readiness, Bulman pointed out. Emergency situations can provide "great examples of finding efficiencies in government," she said, noting the use of the IRS's call-center bank in the response to Hurricane Katrina, as well as assistance from the Federal Highway and Motor Carrier Safety Administrations. Trump has not appointed a head for either of these Transportation Department components, and the IRS is run by a holdover from the Obama administration who is much reviled by Republicans in Congress.

The stance from the president -- through the hiring freeze and public comment -- has been that these continued vacancies are deliberate, done in the name of increasing government efficiency. Between June and July, federal employment -- excluding the U.S. Postal Service --dropped by 2,200, according to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"If it is a strategy, it's not really a successful strategy," said Bulman. "By not naming these positions, you're lessening the president's ability to lead these agencies."