NTEU’s Alleged Defense of Merit Principles: What’s a Little Hypocrisy Among Friends and Colleagues?

Are the goals of a recent lawsuit filed by a federal union to improve the merit system or to prevent an agency from being able to bring in new employees from outside the agency?

In reading recent articles in the press, such as those recently published on the FedSmith website, it occurred to me that one good program that has enabled agencies to recruit and hire new, qualified federal employees directly from college campuses is the Federal Career Intern Program (FCIP). It is relatively straight-forward, easy to understand as these programs go and gives an agency and a potential new federal employee a chance to see if there is a good fit between government requirements and the goals and requirements of the agency.

With that in mind, a recent lawsuit filed by the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) may meet the union’s objectives but is likely to harm efforts by the government to improve its attempts to hire employees for a “government that works well” through enhanced management flexibility.

Even NTEU may realize the inherent problem with its position. Its apparent need to couch its rationale in politically acceptable terms such as upholding merit principles while blatantly pursuing a one-sided union goal has little to do with upholding the merit system and hiring qualified applicants. But what is a little hypocrisy among friends?

Here is the situation in a nutshell. In its press release, the union portrays its actions as defending the merit system in government hiring and promotion and attacks OPM for damaging the system through the intern program. According to the union, the federal intern program “amounts to a frontal assault on the competitive hiring examination process….”

And, not surprisingly, the intern program is inherently suspect, in the view of the union, because agency management finds it useful.

“… FCIP authority is attractive to management…because it allows agencies broad discretion to target recruitment narrowly—for example, at college campuses—and then to choose among applicants without having to conform to established rating and ranking procedures.”

For anyone who has ever dealt with NTEU, the union’s position is such a ludicrous claim that it rivals, for hubris, Bill Clinton’s statement about how he didn’t do what we all knew he did with Monica. The lawsuit is not about merit, far from it. The lawsuit is about NTEU’s ongoing effort to make the use of merit by Federal managers as difficult as possible.

NTEU is suing to force managers to limit their consideration in selection to employees who are already agency employees and, no surprise, represented by NTEU. The union first advanced the concept of “First Consideration” in the 1970s. First consideration, as NTEU would like to see it operate, means that a selecting official (the manager responsible for the selection) must announce a job, rate and rank candidates, conduct interviews and decide that sufficient highly qualified internal candidates are not available before anyone outside the most minimal area of consideration may even be considered for the job. In most organizations, we’re talking a three to six month gap in filling the vacancy after higher level authorization to do so.

The internal staffing process in agencies can be complex and time consuming. This complexity is the result of a number of causes. Among them are provisions of the “merit promotion” process that favor pre-announcement classification reviews, position management determinations, narrow areas of consideration, limited announcement of jobs, required interviews, and extensive written justifications of non-selection to the losers. Much of this complexity results from negotiated provisions. Additionally, the pervasive paranoia among managers that whoever they pick, they will be assailed by allegations of discrimination from whoever they didn’t pick, forces agencies to adopt time consuming and rigid documentation and justification processes at every step of the “merit promotion” system. Federal unions ride this paranoia to negotiate as much complexity as necessary to insure inside hiring.

NTEU wants to kill the Federal Career Intern Program (FCIP) because it brings into consideration college-educated candidates that will not owe their selection to agency Byzantine systems which NTEU was able to get Clinton era appointees to negotiate or that arose from misguided beliefs that strictly objective criteria for selection are possible, necessary, or even desirable. People from the outside have no inherent loyalty to NTEU and their selection must be avoided at all cost.

By the way, the purpose of this article is not to condemn NTEU’s lawsuit. NTEU has every right to seek to strengthen its bargaining position by any legal means. My concern has to do with the absolute hypocrisy of claiming that the union’s goal is to safeguard “merit principles.” But this paragraph really doesn’t matter as most of those who will comment negatively won’t get this far in their reading.

We can only hope OPM has the will to aggressively defend one of management’s few flexibilities that really advance merit, namely, the infusion of new thinking into organizations.

As always, the opinions stated herein are mine and mine alone.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.