TCS Daily

The Enemy Within

By Duane D. Freese - February 6, 2004 12:00 AM

According to ABC News, "A shortage of Arabic translators in Iraq has made it harder for U.S. soldiers to protect themselves, jeopardized interrogations of suspected al Qaeda terrorists in U.S. custody in Cuba and left almost no one to defend American policy on Arab television stations."

Federal employment policies may seem mundane matters, but how the government deals with recruiting and hiring employees affects public safety and well-being directly.

Shortages of vital personnel constantly crop up in exigent circumstances. CFO Magazine reported in 2002 that the Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, was having a hard time hiring enough accountants and lawyers in the midst of the Enron and WorldCom debacles. And despite a patriotic bounce in public service after 9-11, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in July of 2002 that the newly organized Department of Homeland Security would face continuing shortages in three critical occupation groups -- information technology, law enforcement and the sciences.

The reasons for the shortages are many. Sometimes they amount to a lack of people with the requisite skills. As Kevin Hendzle of the American Translators Association told ABC News, "It's easier to train someone to fly an F-14 than it is to speak Arabic." Sometimes it's a lack of pay or perquisites. Private sector jobs in high skill professions such as the law, accounting, software development, or medicine generally provide more than public jobs. Public service thus can rest in no small measure upon a person making a private sacrifice.

But while not discounting those deterrents, another problem is that sometimes bureaucracy just gets in its own way in the hiring process. The federal government suffers mightily from creating hurdles that can leave applicants waiting days, weeks, months, even up to a year for decisions to get made. Even in the tight job market of the last two years, most applicants could find private employment a lot faster than they could find work in the public sector.

Thus the Bush administration's Managerial Flexibility Act of 2001 and the president's Freedom to Manage Initiative look prescient in their attempt to eliminate hiring inefficiencies that, as much as pay and perks, can deter many from becoming public servants.

One of the keys of that initiative is to allow any agency with examining authority -- be it the Office of Personnel Management or the human resources sections of any federal department or agency -- to put in place systems for evaluating job applicants tailored to their needs and to hire candidates directly if there is a staff shortage or critical position unfilled.

Such hiring flexibility is vital in a time of national emergency, such as today's war on terror, as it puts competent people in positions to protect us rapidly -- translators or code-breakers or crime fighters or airport security personnel.

Some agencies, thanks to forward-thinking personnel directors, have demonstrated that the government can fill positions quickly by making use of new technology developed by the private sector. In the mid 1990s, for example, the Department of Defense began using an automated, interactive web-based resume system -- Resumix, now owned by HotJobs -- to reduce substantially both the time for posting vacancies and for receiving resumes. The resume service allows for keyword searches to help personnel departments narrow their searches. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, whose role in protecting America's shores has expanded and become more high tech in the wake of 9-11, is using a private vendor, Avue, to increase its applicant pool substantially and quickly.

Such speed saves not merely time, but money. Those agencies that have gone to private contractors have cut their human resources costs even as they fill their positions more quickly. And in finding key security personnel, speed in filling posts may also save lives.

So, you would think that the agency in charge of personnel policy -- the Office of Personnel Management -- would do all in its power to see that job slots were filled as quickly and competently as possible. Indeed, at one point, it seemed that was exactly what it wanted to do. It bid out its USAJobs site to a private contractor,, to make it more accessible to job applicants and to agencies seeking workers. The idea wasn't a bad one. But its execution has become anything but.

While the agency touts the fact that the site has had something on the order of 31 million visitors since last August, it really hasn't tracked how its resume system is working in actually fitting people and agencies together.

Worse, though, OPM made a big grab for bureaucratic power, by trying to make its job site the only one around. Why? For starters, it gets a fee from individual agencies for every job OPM itself fills. To encourage that use, it would have penalized agencies that used private contractors for any of their hiring by denying those agencies access to the applications put on the OPM site.

But monopolies are rarely innovative, and centralized government bureaucracies that monopolize a service have rarely shown themselves to be flexible in meeting market demands or client needs -- whether the client is another agency or the public.

Fortunately, though, Congress and the Bush administration appear to understand that while a prominent, readily accessible federal jobs site has its uses, depriving agencies in need of help of other hiring tools would simply be stupid and bad for national security. In January, on the appropriations bill passed by Congress, an amendment was added by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., that allows federal agencies to keep their own Web sites listing job openings and take online applications. OPM's Monster site won't be allowed to eat them alive.

Government needs to hire the best people it can find to protect American lives. But the USA Jobs fiasco demonstrates that the biggest enemy it faces in that task isn't always from some foreign terrorist abroad but from bureaucratic insolence within.


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