Chasing Our Own Tails

Change comes slowly to the federal bureaucracy. GAO points out the latest example–in this case the federal hiring process.

Anyone who has worked for or around the federal government knows that organizations are slow to change. Even if there are good reasons to change, and even if authority is given to agencies to change, new ways of getting things done can take years.

Here is the latest example. It wasn’t too long ago that agency personnel officials were telling GAO and others that the reason government hiring was slow was because the rules required slow procedures. And, while agency officials may often complain about rules and regulations to very little effect, in this case new authority was given to speed up the hiring process.

In its latest report, GAO reports that agencies are not using new authority to speed up the hiring process–even though some of these same agencies were previously making noises that they wanted to change but were prevented from doing so by cumbersome bureaucratic regulations.

As it turns out, some people like cumbersome, bureaucratic regulations. Or, if they don’t like them, they feel comfortable using them. Regulations provide a warm, comfortable feeling of security from knowing that if they are followed, there is little room for criticism since “that’s the way we have always done it”–or “we have to do it that way because we are not allowed to do it differently.” Oftentimes, the reason people don’t want to change is they know how to use the current system. And, if others don’t understand it, that is even better because it makes those that know the rules more powerful and invaluable to the organization.

Some in Congress wanted to know if there were any changes in the federal hiring process. There are a lot of reasons for changing the old system but the overriding rationale is that a lot of the baby boomers will be leaving government soon and there will need to be a lot more hiring of people to take their place when they walk out the door.

But, says GAO, there hasn’t been that much change in the implementing of hiring new federal employees. There were several reasons agency officials gave GAO for not taking advantage of new hiring flexibility:

–OPM has not told us how to use the new system;

–there are no new regulations issued telling us how to use the system;

–while OPM has not told us how to use the system, the rules they have issued do not provide enough flexibility;

–the flexibility of the new procedures mean that our hiring rules may be inconsistent.

If you choose to download the GAO report and check out this section, you will see that the the phrasing of these reasons isn’t specifically in the report. Instead, careful, measured terms are dished out to avoid too much controversy or criticism.

If nothing else, the reasons for not changing to a new system are innovative, even if used many times before under different circumstances.

• We could not implement the new system because we need more flexibility;

• We could not implement the new system because OPM hasn’t told us how to do it;

• We could not implement the new system because our agency has not developed regulations and policies to implement it;

• We could not implement the new system because, without more regulations, we may be criticized for being inconsistent in our hiring policies.

Or, stated differently, we are very comfortable with the way we have been hiring for the past few decades and really don’t want to do something different.

Change will come to the hiring process as it often does in large organizations. It will come slowly. The government’s hiring process will change in a few agencies and others will see the benefits of it and, reluctantly, carefully and in measured terms, change will creep in to the federal human resources system.

You can download the complete GAO report from the link on the left hand side of this page and are welcome to add your comments at the end of this article.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47