The Department of Veterans Affairs clearly needs help with filling vacancies. Federal News Radio recently reported that Secretary David Shulkin said “It’s the single most challenging thing that I know of in VA. It shouldn’t be that hard to get people on board.”
Secretary Shulkin is right. Agency leaders, members of congress and other stakeholders have said for years that the federal hiring process is a tremendous barrier to attracting new talent to the federal government. Those people are right, too. When there is almost universal agreement that something is a problem, why does the problem not get fixed? The answer is in the combination of inertia that hampers all government reforms, and in the interests of the various groups who want to say how federal hiring should work. People on the left tend to want hiring to focus on keeping federal jobs in the hands of federal workers, while those on the right want to use hiring reform to push jobs into the private sector.
We should stop focusing on the interests of a few and pay attention to the real problem. The VA hiring dilemma is a great example. Secretary Shulkin says VA has 49,000 vacancies and is not making headway on getting them filled. Congress may consider direct hire authority for some of the jobs, but not for all of them. Even if they get partial relief, the likelihood of getting all of those jobs filled is slim.
The best solution is to implement department-wide hiring reform that can serve as a model for the rest of the federal government. VA is the perfect place to try something that truly fixes the hiring process. Here is why.
People hate to admit it, but the biggest problem with the hiring process is the way veteran preference is implemented. I have written about this issue before. When we talk about the complexity of federal hiring, it all boils down to the idea that we come up with what we believe are valid ways of assessing applicants, then we throw out much of the assessment and add points or lump applicants into categories because they are veterans. The result is the messy and incomprehensible hiring process that we currently have.
The intent of veteran preference is sound. Most people would not argue with the idea that we should provide a benefit to those who have served in the armed forces. That does not mean we have to do it the way we do now. There is a far easier approach that does not make a mess of the hiring process.
The best approach congress could adopt, using VA as the testing ground, is to grant direct hire authority to VA for any veteran for any job. That would be the new form of veteran preference. For jobs that the department chooses to advertise, there would be no preference for veterans or anyone else. The department would fill the jobs the same way they would if they were VA, Inc.They would advertise jobs and pick the people they believe are the best qualified. Period.
The VA is a perfect place to test this approach, because there is no question that the department is committed to veterans. Veteran benefits and health are the mission (and I’m not forgetting the Cemetery Administration). At 32.8%, VA has the third highest percentage of veterans in its workforce (behind DoD and Transportation). Granting preference through direct hire authority rather than points or special categories is likely to have no negative effect on veteran hiring. In fact, it is more likely to increase it. At the same time, it puts the VA hiring processes on level footing with the private sector. Why is that important? Because that is the competition in the talent market. Combining the negative perceptions of government in some quarters with the absurdly complex federal hiring process created a situation where VA and some other agencies cannot compete effectively for talent.
The mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs is one of the most critical of any agency. If we want them to be able to carry out that mission, we need to give them the tools they need to hire the people they need. This approach is simple, will go a long way toward solving the problem, and could be the model for government-wide hiring reform.