Federal Hiring:

OPM Needs to Improve Management and Oversight of Hiring Authorities

GAO-16-521: Published: Aug 2, 2016. Publicly Released: Sep 1, 2016.

Additional Materials:


Robert Goldenkoff
(202) 512-2757


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

What GAO Found

A hiring authority is the law, executive order, or regulation that allows an agency to hire a person into the federal civil service. Of the 105 hiring authorities used in fiscal year 2014, agencies relied on 20 for 91 percent of the 196,226 new appointments made that year. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) officials said they do not know if agencies rely on a small number of authorities because agencies are unfamiliar with other authorities, or if they have found other authorities to be less effective. The competitive examining hiring authority, generally seen as the traditional method for federal hiring, was the single most used authority in fiscal year 2014, but accounted for less than 25 percent of all new appointments.

Agencies Relied on 20 Hiring Authorities for Nearly All New Hires in Fiscal Year 2014

Highlights_5 v1 -451150

While OPM—the agency responsible for overseeing the delegated hiring authority and managing federal civilian personnel data—tracks data on agency time-to-hire, manager and applicant survey results, and compliance audits to assess the hiring process, this information is not used by OPM or agencies to analyze the effectiveness of hiring authorities. As a result, OPM and agencies do not know if authorities are meeting their intended purposes. By analyzing hiring authorities, OPM and agencies could identify improvements that could be used to refine authorities, expand access to specific authorities found to be highly efficient and effective, and eliminate those found to be less effective.

OPM's Hiring Excellence Campaign consists of a number of multi-agency, in-person events and is OPM's latest initiative designed to address long-standing challenges with federal hiring. OPM officials described the objectives, strategies, and measures by which the campaign will be measured and sustained. Going forward it will be important for OPM to sustain the campaign's efforts and incorporate lessons learned, if any, from similar prior or existing efforts to improve federal hiring.

Why GAO Did This Study

Federal agencies face human capital challenges as a large percentage of employees become eligible to retire and agencies compete with the private sector for critical skills. To acquire needed talent, agencies need a hiring process that is applicant friendly, flexible, and meets policy requirements, such as hiring on the basis of merit.

GAO was asked to review the extent to which federal hiring authorities were meeting agency needs. This report examines (1) the hiring authorities agencies used in fiscal year 2014 (the most recent data at the time of the review), (2) the extent to which case study agencies and OPM assessed the effectiveness of hiring authorities, and (3) how OPM ensured that agencies understood how to use hiring authorities effectively.

To meet these objectives, GAO analyzed OPM data and documents, and interviewed OPM and officials from three agencies selected on the basis of recent high hiring levels in critical skill occupations.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that the Director of OPM, working with agencies, strengthen hiring efforts by (1) analyzing the extent to which federal hiring authorities are meeting agencies' needs; (2) using this information to explore opportunities to refine, eliminate, or expand authorities as needed, and (3) sustain the Hiring Excellence Campaign's efforts to improve agency hiring and leverage prior initiatives, as appropriate. OPM generally concurred with these recommendations.

For more information, contact Robert Goldenkoff at (202) 512-2757 or goldenkoffr@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: As of July 2018, OPM had completed reviews of agencies' use of certain hiring authorities. For example, in August 2016, OPM published the findings of a recent study on the use and effectiveness of the Pathways Programs' hiring authorities. In October 2016, OPM issued a report on hiring authorities used by the National Park Service to help meet its seasonal workforce needs. In July 2018, OPM issued a memorandum to Chief Human Capital Officers announcing the release of its study, Excepted Service Hiring Authorities: Their Use and Effectiveness in the Executive Branch. As part of this study, OPM reviewed hiring data and agency policies, interviewed human resources staff, and surveyed hiring managers. OPM found that, although agencies were using excepted service authorities to support mission-critical occupations, they were missing opportunities to implement more strategic, innovative, and targeted recruitment activities. OPM also highlighted examples that individual agencies had used to help improve their hiring outcomes and identified actions for OPM and agencies to help improve the federal hiring process. As a result of these studies on specific hiring authorities aimed at identifying ways to improve federal hiring, including OPM's collaboration with agency officials, we are closing this recommendation as being implemented.

    Recommendation: To help strengthen the government's ability to compete in the labor market for top talent, and to improve the federal hiring process, for hiring authorities for which OPM oversees, the Director of OPM, in conjunction with the Chief Human Capital Officer (CHCO) Council, should conduct a study or assessment of specific hiring authorities and/or processes to gain insight into why these agencies relied on the authorities, the relationship between the agencies' choices and the agency mission and broader public policy goals, consistent with merit systems principles, and determine whether modernization is necessary. For agency-specific hiring authorities and/or processes, OPM should collaborate with the CHCO Council to obtain similar insights agencies may have regarding their authorities and/or processes and to determine whether there are lessons learned which may be relevant to government-wide modernization efforts.

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

  2. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: OPM agreed with this recommendation and has taken actions to address it since GAO's August 2016 report. In April 2019, OPM issued final regulations implementing changes to direct hire authority to provide certain agencies with the ability to hire urgently needed information technology professionals more quickly. It also plans to provide in-person support to the Chief Human Capital Office council, Chief Information Officers Council, and human resources professionals and managers on how to use this new authority. In its fiscal year 2021 Congressional Budget Justification released on February 10, 2020, OPM noted that it was seeking to improve hiring by using flexibilities that exist within current authority. These include, for example, noncompetitive term-limited appointments of highly qualified experts, expansion of term/temporary hiring authorities, and limited noncompetitive hiring of students and recent graduates. However, some of these plans were initially introduced in the prior year's justification and progress continues to be unclear. Additionally, OPM said that it is currently reassessing administration priorities and was unable to provide further updates. While OPM has made some progress in this area, it will be important for the agency to prioritize and follow through on its planned actions to streamline hiring authorities. Expanding access to hiring authorities found to be highly efficient and effective while eliminating those found to be less effective would help simplify and improve the federal hiring process.

    Recommendation: To help strengthen the government's ability to compete in the labor market for top talent, and to improve the federal hiring process, the Director of OPM, in conjunction with the CHCO Council, should use this information to determine whether opportunities exist to refine, consolidate, eliminate, or expand agency-specific authorities to other agencies and implement changes where OPM is authorized, including seeking presidential authorization (as necessary) in order to do so. In cases where legislation would be necessary to implement changes, OPM should work with the CHCO Council to develop legislative proposals.

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2016, OPM and OMB jointly issued a guidance memorandum titled, Institutionalizing Hiring Excellence to Achieve Mission Outcomes. The memorandum outlined a fiscal year 2017 action plan for agencies, OPM, and OMB, including a request for agencies to prioritize at least three of seven proven practices identified during the Hiring Excellence Campaign as being critical to helping agencies improve their hiring outcomes. According to the memorandum, at the end of the fiscal year 2017, agencies will report on progress and achievements.

    Recommendation: To help strengthen the government's ability to compete in the labor market for top talent, and to improve the federal hiring process, as OPM continues with the implementation of the Hiring Excellence Campaign, the Director of OPM, in conjunction with the CHCO Council, should determine ways to sustain aspects of the campaign that focus on equipping agencies with information, tools, and support to strengthen their knowledge and ability to attract and hire top talent beyond the active roll out of the campaign and leverage prior related efforts through such activities as incorporating applicable lessons learned and that there is no unnecessary overlap and duplication across their individual efforts.

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management


Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Feb 25, 2020

Dec 30, 2019

Oct 10, 2019

Oct 2, 2019

Sep 25, 2019

Sep 11, 2019

Aug 15, 2019

Jul 30, 2019

May 23, 2019

Apr 29, 2019

Looking for more? Browse all our products here