In March, six months after the start of Fiscal Year 2022, Congress finally passed an omnibus funding agreement that brought agencies out from under the shadow of Trump-era austerity (although still fell far short of enacting the funding levels that most agencies require to meet their responsibilities to the public). Critically, in the case of at least one agency, the omnibus did not just grant the money to hire new staff, but the means to do so much more quickly. At the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Congress greenlit the use of direct hiring authorities to empower the agency to temporarily forgo some of the more onerous aspects of the federal hiring process as well as to facilitate a quick rebuilding of the IRS’ notoriously depleted ranks. With this designation, Congress acknowledged that staff shortages at the IRS had reached a state of emergency and thus acted accordingly.
Unfortunately, the IRS’s staffing woes are not anomalous amongst federal agencies, but rather representative of a widespread crisis. Alongside additional increases to agencies’ budgets, Congress should consider replicating its emergency action at the IRS at additional, and equally imperiled, agencies in the next omnibus package. In the meantime, President Biden should use Congress’ precedent to issue an Executive Order declaring a critical hiring shortage, and empower his Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to similarly delegate novel hiring powers to other agencies.
THE STAFFING CRISIS
The country looks very different today than it did in 1952, yet the federal workforce has barely grown to match the expanding needs of a growing population and economy. Between 1952 and 2014, the government only added approximately 13,000 workers. Even so, the specter of growth in the civil service has drawn the ire of Republicans for decades. From claims about civil servants’ laziness to the fabrication of deep state conspiracies, the term bureaucrat has itself been made an insult in many conservative circles. This conservative animus has fueled long-running efforts aimed at the degradation, defunding, and destruction of the federal bureaucracy. Democrats, meanwhile, have too often stood by or, even worse, tacitly endorsed the destructive campaign. As a result, civil servants have been left with little coordinated defense from their ostensible allies on the left. The result is that civil servants have been left floundering withrapidly declining morale rates amidst an aging workforce, rising resignation levels, and declining application rates for open positions. Several of these trends worsened significantly under the Trump administration, creating the emergency which Biden has inherited.
Fortunately, Biden has the means to begin to reverse these trends. He can, and must, empower his OPM to exercise its existing authorities and implement critical new hiring measures more broadly across the independent agencies.
OPM AND MITIGATING THE CRISIS
There are over 100 distinct hiring authorities which can be utilized by federal agencies. Yet, 90% of new civil servants are hired under only 20 hiring authorities, making the vast majority of these special designations vastly underutilized. OPM, as the federal office entrusted with the management of the federal workforce, should commit dedicated time and resources to investigating which of these authorities are best suited to each agency’s specific needs, and work with these agencies to oversee their implementation. Some of the authorities that could be particularly useful in the process of rebuilding are:
- Direct Hire: Direct hiring allows agencies to circumvent certain of the most time-consuming processes in competitive hiring procedures. These appointments allow for the direct hire into permanent positions with public notice given, but are hastened by the ability to hire as soon as a suitable candidate is found in order to temporarily replenish staff levels with fewer hiring obstacles and on a more expedient timeline than traditional government hiring requires. It is currently most often used to fill IT and STEM-related positions, but should be briefly expanded to other desperately lacking categories such as HR officials.
- Excepted Service: The Excepted Service refers to the civil servants whose hiring is not subject to competitive hiring processes. Currently, this applies to vocation categories such as attorneys and chaplains, but could be temporarily expanded to other categories of positions that have proven difficult to fill. While there are more limits on excepted service hires than there are for direct hires, such as term-service limits or certain qualification standards, this authority could still be useful to facilitate surge hiring in several ways. For example, expansion of this authority to hiring-related officials, including recruiters, on a term-limited basis would greatly aid in the immediate processing and implementation of the hiring surges that are necessary.
- Reemployed Annuitants: Under unique circumstances, including emergencies, OPM can allow agencies to rehire departed employees without “applying the usual requirement that their salary be offset by the amount of their retirement payment.” Such authority could be used to encourage retirement-eligible employees to stay in their positions, or to welcome departed staff back, in order to maintain (and pass on) institutional knowledge amidst huge hiring surges. A huge number of civil servants left during the Trump administration. While a devastating loss, these individuals represent a unique hiring pool with extensive experience and applicable skills who could help bridge agency gaps.
To be clear, these authorities do not have to, and indeed must not, come at the cost of bureaucrats’ labor rights. These authorities should be used to hire civil servants into positions with all of the protections of traditional, and competitively hired, applicants. To attract, and to keep, talent in government, agencies should prioritize stabilizing the benefits of the federal workplace, including its superior labor protections and robust work-life balance standards.
AGENCIES IN NEED
Over the past year, Revolving Door Project has profiled numerous agencies that would benefit from hiring authorities like those extended to the IRS. These include (although are certainly not limited to):
- The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): HUD has been shedding staff for decades. Between 1991 and 2019, HUD lost more than 49% of its full-time equivalent staff (FTEs). Even worse, 44.6% of HUD’s 2018 staff was estimated to be retirement-eligible by 2022. These shortages have harmed HUD’s ability to adequately administer its programs, provide desperately needed oversight, and enforce fair housing laws. Staff shortages at HUD have very real consequences for the people who rely on its programs, many of whom have been left stranded in unsafe housing, without access to housing assistance, or without redress for illegal discrimination due to HUD’s inefficiences. HUD desperately needs more staff, but Secretary Marcia Fudge has expressed significant frustration with the amount of time and energy which attempting to hire has consumed. A Biden E.O., and OPM assistance could mitigate the burdens of the hiring process and allow Secretary Fudge to focus on implementing HUD’s mission instead of the crisis in its capacity.
- The Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (ATR): ATR is one of the primary regulators of antitrust law, and is the lead federal investigator and prosecutor of criminal antitrust violations. With corporate consolidations reaching record levels, this entity is more important now than ever. Unfortunately, ATR sustained serious losses under the Trump administration, with staffing levels that fell sharply from 830 total staff in FY17 to just 635 total staff in FY20. These staffing shortages coincided with a drastic increase in the division’s caseload. This disparity has left the public exceedingly vulnerable to corporate monopolistic impulses.
- The Department of the Interior (DOI): DOI will be a key partner in any federal climate response. DOI manages the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – itself responsible for 245 million acres of public land – and provides critical oversight over much of federal oil and gas leasing. Because of its power to approve or deny leases, and its environmental impact responsibilities, Interior is critical in the fight to unsettle Big Oil’s climate devastation as perpetrated on public lands, and for holding corporations that violate environmental law on them to account. Yet, DOI has been losing critical staff for years. Between 2010 and 2020, Interior lost approximately 13,000 jobs, making “abandoned and faulty oil and gas wells a staple, not an anomaly, of oil exploration on public land.” This is a problem, in part, because uncapped wells often leak methane and other pollutants, which hasten and exacerbate climate devastation. In short, a lack of oversight over the infrastructure and stability of abandoned gas projects ultimately leaves the public (and global climate) vulnerable to exploitation with impunity. To fully empower the agency, and aid in its mission and oversight responsibilities, Interior would greatly benefit from a restoration of its ranks as fueled through an urgent hiring surge.
Addressing this crisis, and intentional party-wide investment in the civil service more broadly, must become a rallying point for Democrats. Restoring staffing capacity at agencies materially benefits the American public in myriad ways. Increased capacity can streamline access to the critical services to which members of the public are entitled but which are too often delayed or denied thanks to insufficient staffing. It can also help to better ensure that corporate bad actors are held to account and that their victims are made whole in a timely manner. This has the potential to impact almost every issue facing the modern American public, including things like climate change, evictions, student and medical debt crises, and more. By prioritizing a quick restoration of agency capacity, Biden could use freshly resourced agencies to independently implement reforms across the government. Doing so would allow Biden to innovate action on his policy priorities to the ultimate benefit of the (voting) public, even in the context of an increasingly combative Congress.
MAINTAINING WORKER PROTECTIONS AND COMPETITIVE SERVICE
To be clear, broad reliance on these hiring authorities should be considered an emergency measure, not a long-term staffing solution. Each special authority should be used only as long as necessary to restore a stable, functional, and full, civil service. Once capacity has been restored, the OPM should restrict the use of exceptional authorities while continuing to work with agencies to determine the ways in which the Office can proactively help manage hiring processes to ensure long term staffing stability. In particular, OPM should examine whether current competitive hiring processes are meeting their purported goals and propose any reforms consistent with merit system principles.
OPM should also prioritize, and begin work on, building stable pipelines into government service. Part of the current staffing crisis stems from the failure to bring in and retain young talent as the federal workforce inevitably ages. Today, only 30% of federal workers are younger than 40 (compared to the private sector’s 45%). To make the federal landscape more reflective of the broader population, and to ensure there exists institutionalized knowledge and experience cross-generationally within these departments, OPM should rework and revitalize the Pathways program, which allows agencies to hire students and recent grads as interns with opportunity for non-competitive full time conversions. While President Obama started Pathways specifically to aid young people in entering the public sector, agencies have so far underutilized it in filling mission-critical positions in part because of the high administrative burden which the program currently requires. OPM should therefore ease agencies’ use of the program through adopting some of the more consuming administrative burdens, such as applicant intake and initial criteria screenings, and share the applicant pools for similar positions across hiring departments. OPM should also undertake proactive recruitment measures, including starting hiring processes early in the school year and implementing broad campus advertising strategies.
This program revamp, other long term hiring processes, and all emergency measures must also center diversity in their processes. To institutionalize diversity in Pathways particularly, OPM should prioritize building partnerships and employment pipelines with Tribal Colleges and Universities, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and other like programs. Federal civil servants at all levels should reflect the diversity of the nation they serve, and forging hiring pipelines such as these would help to foster a culture of diversity and ensure long-term workforce stability across the federal landscape.
RESTORE STAFF, RESTORE PUBLIC FAITH IN GOVERNMENT
People want a government that works, and that works for them. With Congressional cooperation dwindling and even the most popular public initiatives left floundering on the Hill, finally addressing the insufficient capacity at federal agencies could be the easiest way for Democrats to fulfill campaign trail promises of making their constituents’ lives better in material, tangible, ways. Biden could start this endeavor today, and he should.
“Internal Revenue Service building – Washington DC – 2012” by Tim Evanson is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.