US federal government to appoint officials to 10-year ‘temporary’ jobs

By on 05/12/2022 | Updated on 05/12/2022
A cartoon illustration of a scientist in a lab
Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

The Biden administration is to press ahead with plans to allow the US federal government to appoint temporary officials for periods of up to a decade.

This would more than double the maximum number of years staff appointed to temporary contacts currently serve.

The change was first proposed by the previous administration under president Trump, but has continued under Biden, with the Office of Personnel Management having published details of the change last week.

According to the OPM guidance, the federal government will be able to make temporary term appointments in certain science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) related occupations of up to 10 years from 3 January 2023.

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Under current rules, agencies are required to seek OPM authorisation to either make initial appointments to terms that exceed four years, or to extend four-year term appointments.

The updated regulation from the OPM stated that the flexibility is intended to help agencies hire staff for “foreseeably long-term projects of a STEM-related nature when the need for the work is not permanent”.

These longer-term appointments “may also assist agencies in recruiting individuals with certain specialised knowledge, who may be interested in acquiring further skills and experience working on a project basis and would be less likely to pursue or accept a career position”, according to the OPM. However, appointments would not be allowed to be converted into a permanent competitive service position outwith normal recruitment processes.

Plan to boost science, technology, engineering, and mathematics skills

Viet Tran, a spokesperson for the OPM, told GovExec that the rule showed the administration’s “commitment to STEM hiring” and added that it would allow for more federal, rather than outsourced, hiring.

“With this final rule, agencies have more flexibility and support (and less administrative burden) to hire employees – rather than contractors – for non-permanent STEM positions that agencies expect from the outset to last longer than four years but not more than 10 years,” Tran said. “This is another tool to help agencies better compete for talent.”

The provisions will be limited – at least initially – to STEM positions, despite initial plans for the relaxation to be rolled out more widely, after concerns were raised in a consultation about the change by trade unions representing federal employees.

The OPM regulation stated the consultation revealed that “the most significant demand for the ten-year term authority is for STEM-related occupations”. The office said that “historically, OPM has received very few requests for initial appointments beyond four years”, but concluded that “based on agency input, there is a growing demand for longer term appointments tied to certain STEM-related projects”.

“Accordingly, OPM has determined that it will scope this authority to the most common demand expressed by agencies – to support STEM-related projects that are time-limited in nature but are expected to last beyond four years.”

Responding to concerns from respondents to the consultation about the potential for these long-term temporary appointments to undermine the merit recruitment principles for civil servants, OPM’s said “we are not aware of any documented instances of abuse or adverse effects”, but added “we take seriously our role in protecting merit system principles, and we appreciate the concerns expressed in these comments”.

“We therefore have decided that, because this is a new delegation of authority, it is prudent to evaluate how it will be applied to a subset of occupations – namely, STEM-related occupations – before extending it further.”

The criteria for a possible extension to other roles has been set out by the OPM: “If we see an increased demand from agencies for longer term appointments in occupations not covered by this final rule, and we see no significant abuse or negative effects on the federal workforce from this delegation, we will consider expanding the scope of occupations in the future.”

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About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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