GAO prods OPM to review pandemic hiring

A new Government Accountability Office report says that not compiling the lessons learned from special hiring authorities could "risk significantly hindering the government's ability to recruit, hire, retain and manage its current COVID-19 pandemic workforce as well as for future pandemics or emergencies."

masked office workers talking in hallway (Goran Bogicevic/

A government watchdog says that the Office of Personnel Management needs to develop a process to gather and disseminate government-wide lessons learned from the use of temporary hiring authorities given to agencies to hire staff more quickly as they dealt with the pandemic.

During the crisis, some agencies got access to special hiring authorities from Congress and OPM itself, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office. OPM gave five agencies direct hire authority, giving them leeway to disregard certain competitive hiring practices, like rating and ranking procedures or veterans' preference, for certain positions.

The report reviewed agencies' experiences with these COVID-19 related hiring authorities and OPM's oversight of the authorities.

GAO's one recommendation is that OPM work with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council to make a process for collecting and sharing governmentwide lessons on the use of these authorities.

OPM concurred with that recommendation. Forthcoming reviews in FY 2022 could give insight into how agencies used these authorities, but OPM "has yet to develop plans to collect or widely share lessons learned from agencies' use of the COVID-19 related hiring authorities," the report says.

"If OPM is not able to identify government-wide trends, such as pandemic-related hiring challenges, it cannot take a strategic approach in determining which hiring authorities are most effective at meeting merit principles, policy and mission goals" the report says. "Further, OPM may risk significantly hindering the government's ability to recruit, hire, retain and manage its current COVID-19 pandemic workforce as well as for future pandemics or emergencies."

Agencies in GAO's review said that lessons learned from their experiences include collaborating internally to maximize information-sharing about the authorities; knowing their agency's hiring needs and available hiring authorities; developing workarounds to hiring challenges and requesting changes to hiring authorities when hiring needs evolve.

The use of the various pandemic-related authorities varied, with some agencies not using them and others using them to hire thousands – the Veterans Affairs Administration used COVID-19 direct hire authority to bring on over 4,000 employees.

Mark Lambert, OPM's associate director of Merit System Accountability and Compliance, said that the agency concurred, "insofar as OPM is committed to conducting a review of the hiring flexibilities authorized to aid agencies in their COVID-19 response and mission."

He wrote in agency comments included in the report that as part of the review OPM would "determine what, if any, lessons were learned, as well as best practices that may be leveraged for future emergencies."

The report highlighted existing OPM mechanisms it could use to report on these hiring authorities.

The office's periodic evaluations of agency hiring activities, known as staffing reviews, are one option. OPM will review the pandemic-related hiring authorities in staffing reviews starting in FY 2022.

Another potential forum is the annual Human Capital Review meetings, where agencies have the chance to talk about human capital management issues with OPM. These meetings were cancelled during FY 2020 because of the pandemic and according to OPM are set to be resumed in FY 2023.

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