In 1944, in fulfillment of a promise made by this country to members of its armed forces, the Veterans' Preference Act was made the law of the land. That Act -- its roots dating to the Revolutionary War and reaffirmed time and again through the decades that follow provides that certain military service confers an entitlement to preferential treatment when an eligible veteran applies for a civilian position in the United States federal government.
It is not a blanket entitlement. Many serve that are not eligible for veterans' preference, as this entitlement is called. And, while all preference eligibles are veterans; not all veterans are preference eligibles. Meaning, to exercise this preference you must have served in a certain war, campaign, or era (such as the Vietnam Era) or earned a certain medal or badge. It is an earned entitlement.
On the face of it, this would seem fair and just -- recognition of the hardships of battle, the economic stress of military service, the delayed career progression, and the emotional toll on family and self. This one small gesture was to help restore the footing underneath those who have chosen, often in the prime career- and income-building years of their lives, to risk everything in service to their country.
And yet, it is highly convoluted and controversial.
On August 1, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing, the principal focus being veterans' preference. Opening statements by the Committee Chairman and Ranking Member expressed unqualified support for veterans' preference and outrage at potential retaliation against whistleblowers reporting veterans' preference violations. Exuberant Committee members expressed unflagging support for veterans and shared their own stories of military service.
Then, the indignation morphed to confusion, then puzzlement, and then to general uncertainty as testimonies unfolded in front of them all.
Slowly, the issues began to materialize and two conflicting accounts emerged. On the one side, a harmful procedural error occurred requiring a corrective measure. On the other, a pattern of behavior occurred manifested willful and intentional action against veterans.
And so goes the continuing saga of veterans' preference and federal employment. Like the duality of the phrase "Thank you for your service" -- being both ubiquitous and yet profoundly sincere -- veterans' preference possesses a duality of sorts. It is acknowledged as an honorable fulfillment of a nation's promise, and, concomitantly, an advantage that is perceived by many to circumvent meritocracy.
And that's before you get to the convoluted rules of just how it is applied in federal hiring.
In May of 2010, the President issued an Executive Memorandum on Improving the federal Recruitment and Hiring Process. It stated that agencies must implement, by November 1, 2010, a method of hiring called "category rating" instead of the previously mandated procedure called the "Rule of 3" approach.
While this materially changed how veterans' preference was applied in federal hiring, the memorandum's actual focus was on simplifying the hiring process and reducing the time from job posting to hire. Category rating was promoted as a simpler application of veterans' preference which would allow more candidates to be considered than the limitations of the Rule of 3 which only allowed hiring managers to consider the top 3 scoring candidates.
Following his testimony, in an attempt to answer questions from Committee members, the Department of Energy's Inspector General stumbled for an easy definition of category rating, saying that category rating has "many nuances and subtleties."
You can say that again.
In the absolute manifestation of the law of unintended consequences, category rating has done what the Rule of 3 could never do -- it has brought federal hiring to a grinding halt.
In the years since the May 2010 Presidential Memorandum, a very common tale has surfaced. A federal agency runs afoul of a hiring initiative, gets audited by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and has its delegated hiring authority revoked, rendering it incapable of making new hires. Not just one agency. Not just a few. But many, many agencies -- in some cases over half of the agencies within a Department. And it is a rapidly growing trend.
And therein lies the problem.
Imagine setting policy with an implementation plan of "release a memorandum and assume all will follow." Where Rule of 3 had very specific procedures, time worn and tested, Category Rating is without structure and has been morphing rapidly as decisions about the appropriateness of each agency's procedures come under the scrutiny of an OPM audit. Rather than dictate a framework of procedural correctness, OPM is defining it as the implementation of Category Rating moves along.
There is a better way.
These are five points of change. Call it, "Contract with America's Veterans" that will fix the underlying issues related to the clumsy and often "black box" activity associated with federal hiring, applying veterans' preference, and the federal government's merit system of employment.
Tens of thousands of veterans have been successfully placed in positions with federal agencies under the Rule of 3, and there are tens of thousands more who should be placed using Category Rating. But, if agencies continue to lose hiring authority over issues similar to this, the government needs to reassess its approach to hiring, federal HR training and implementation, and ensuring equal protections for all candidates. If agencies have hiring authority revoked on the trajectory OPM is invoking today, not only will veterans lose out on job opportunities, all applicants will lose out.
And the very notion of veterans' preference, as fulfillment of a nation's promise to its military service members, will become so controversial it may not survive.
The solution requires more than pointing to a policy decree and saying, "Do that." It requires rethinking the approach to delegated hiring authority and our nation's commitment to veterans.
U.S. veteran servicemen and women deserve better. So does the American taxpayer.
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