Federal agencies would have more autonomy to address their information technology staffing challenges under a proposed rule issued by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

The agencies would have the discretion to determine whether they’re experiencing “a severe shortage of candidates or a critical hiring need” for information technology (IT) positions and whether to grant themselves direct-hire authority to fill those positions without OPM’s prior approval.

Currently, the federal government’s chief HR organization must first decide if an agency has a critical hiring need before granting direct-hire authority. Direct hiring allows agencies to eliminate applicant ratings and rankings and to skip some requirements, including considering veterans’ preference for open positions. Agencies could use the new authority to hire qualified candidates to IT positions for an initial appointment of no more than four years, but they could extend appointments for up to another four years. After that, those hires would be able to transfer to other agencies, but only in IT roles.

The proposed rule covers most civilian agencies but exempts the Department of Defense. Oversight for the overall process would remain with OPM.

The rule follows an executive order that President Donald Trump signed in May instructing OPM to issue regulations improving federal IT.

Margaret Weichert, acting director of OPM, explained how the move is an important part of the Trump administration’s plan to reduce critical technology skills gaps in the federal workforce and overhaul the government’s technology infrastructure.

“I think over time, there will be a … portfolio of changes that we are going to recommend,” Weichert said during an Oct. 11 press conference. “These are all critical components of focusing on … where we’re having a difficult time getting the right—particularly highly specialized, highly educated—individuals into government to pursue the mission of the 21st century.”

She unveiled plans to offer direct-hire authority for cybersecurity and science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs in the federal government as well.

“As the federal government competes with the private sector in the war for talent, federal leaders benefit from added flexibilities,” said Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, which advocates for the interests of career federal executives. “Hiring is consistently cited as a top challenge, and these direct-hire authorities can ensure agencies are able to recruit talented professionals to fill the demanding and evolving roles that constitute federal work.”

Federal Hiring at a Disadvantage

Direct-hire authority will speed up the hiring process, but federal agencies must still compete with the private sector for in-demand technology talent, and they are significantly behind their private-sector counterparts when it comes to using digital recruitment technology.

“In this competitive talent market, it’s clear that government organizations have to close the gap with the private sector when it comes to meeting candidates where they are―online,” said Susan Fallon Brown, vice president of global strategy and business development for Monster Government Solutions, based in McLean, Va. “Government contractors have customized recruitment tactics to the age of information, taking a ‘be where the people are’ approach that engages candidates on the platforms they utilize most.”