Pentagon ends civilian hiring freeze, but tells managers to carefully scrutinize all positions

The Defense Department moved Wednesday to officially end the civilian hiring freeze that had been in effect since the beginning of the Trump administration, saying Pentagon leaders should continue to proceed carefully with any decisions to fill open positions, but that new hires would no longer require explicit permission.

In a memo, Robert Work, the deputy secretary of Defense, said the detailed exemption procedures military components have had to follow in order to hire new civilians since Feb. 1 are no longer in effect as of now, but that he expected senior leaders to abide by the spirit of the latest hiring guidance the Office of Management and Budget issued on Apr. 12, telling agencies to devise more “surgical” approaches to reducing the overall size of the federal workforce.

“I expect components to scrutinize carefully all recruitment and hiring actions and undertake to recruit or hire only when such are wholly consistent with the principles, requirements and actions set forth in the OMB memorandum,” Work wrote.

Also, within two weeks, each of the military services and agencies will need to submit detailed reports on any hiring they conducted while the freeze was still in effect, including the extent to which they made use of the exemptions Work authorized in February. DoD plans to use that information to meet another OMB requirement: that all agencies develop their own reform plans by this summer explaining how they’ll continue to reduce headcount, measure employee performance and restructure their missions.

In the meantime, Work laid out three broad considerations Defense officials will need to take into account when deciding to fill open positions:

  • Whether the duties of the position, qualifications and skills requirements, or organizational placement of the duties reflect current and projected mission needs;
  • Whether a job’s functions can be moved to lower levels of an organization, at a lower pay grade; and
  • Whether and how any appropriate changes to the position can be accomplished in a timely and efficient manner.

Also, to make sure DoD’s overall civilian workforce doesn’t grow excessively because of short-term or “emerging” missions, Work said he was urging managers to use term and temporary employees to fill any critical hiring needs.

“The use of borrowed military manpower should also be avoided and restrictions on the use of funds for contracted services in excess of established organizational baselines remain in effect,” said Johnny Michael, a Defense spokesman.

Beyond those general considerations, the department intends to apply extra scrutiny to decisions to fill open positions in areas where Congress has already ordered the Defense Department to reorganize itself.

For instance, the 2017 Defense authorization bill mandated that DoD eliminate the office of the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics and replace it with two new undersecretariats: one for research and engineering; one for acquisition and sustainment. Defense officials are already in the process of deciding which of AT&L’s legacy functions will belong within each of the new organizations.

The same bill ordered a restructuring of the military’s health care system. Starting in October 2018, all military treatment facilities will be run by the Defense Health Agency, not the individual military services that operate them today.

And Work’s new memo places special restrictions on hiring within DoD’s Senior Executive Service, also as a result of a provision in the 2017 NDAA — this one telling the department to implement a  roughly 25 percent cut in its SES positions by 2022.

“Until a DoD plan is established to address the reduction of SES positions, any action to recruit or fill an SES position, including a limited term SES appointment, shall be announced internally to all qualified sitting career members of the SES across the department,” he wrote. “Applications received in response to an internal announcement will be evaluated and considered prior to initiating a recruitment action for applicants who are not current career members of the DoD SES corps.”