Suggestions for reforms at the Office of Personnel Management

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The Office of Personnel Management is the object of a long list of reform recommendations from the National Academy of Public Administration. What Congress will do with them is anyone’s guess. Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked about it with American University Professor and NAPA fellow Bob Tobias.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Bob, good to have you back. And we should point out that yes, you are a NAPA fellow, but you were not part of this, “look at OPM,” correct?

Bob Tobias: That’s correct, yeah.

Tom Temin: Alright, so what’s your big takeaway having read this because being someone who’s followed personnel matters for a long time, let’s say?

Bob Tobias: Well, there’s a fundamental overlap of duties and responsibilities between the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management. The Office of Management and Budget, or OMB, is responsible for creating the president’s budget, and supervising its implementation. OPM is responsible for creating the human resource policies necessary to implement the budget. Now, the NAPA report focused on the area where there is no overlap between the two. And that is protection of the career civil servants. Now that function and responsibility was created in 1871. And NAPA said in its report, that there should be an expanded responsibility to OPM to quote, steward the merit system for all civilian personnel systems, and employees. And it also said that it should ensure that merit system principles by employing efficient risk based data driven processes. So it’s saying that OPM ought carry out this responsibility. But the problem is this Tom, OPM does not have any ability to carry out what it creates. And OMB does not have the staff to create the policy it needs. There needs to be an effective partnership.

Tom Temin: Yes. And then the result is historically that each agency then is left to its own devices on precisely how it will carry out OPM and OMB policy. And so you sometimes have very differing experiences on the part of the workforce, depending on the agency.

Bob Tobias: Right. So OMB has tried to influence its responsibility by tinkering with agency budgets, if you don’t do this, your budget is going to be cut. OPM has tried to create compliance audits, but that has failed as well. So this issue of who creates what policy and how it gets implemented, has been the crux of the problem in the past, and I don’t think it’s really solved for the future.

Tom Temin: And there was an emphasis on the word “all,” human capital systems in the government. And I got the sense that they were talking about maybe Title 38, as well as Title 5, and whatever other systems that are not part of the standard GS system. But they weren’t all that specific beyond that, from what I can tell.

Bob Tobias: I think that the NAPA goal here was to say that OPM should have responsibility for human resource policy across the federal government for every single civilian federal employee to create a uniform approach to federal employment.

Tom Temin: Right, because do DoD has, again, traditionally gone its own way, even on the civilian side, and we’ve seen lots of attempts at something to fit DoD that’s separate from what OPM and OMB do for the rest of the government. And they’ve had varying successes over the years.

Bob Tobias: That’s true. Agencies have sought exceptions to Title 5 to solve a particular responsibility. And Congress has responded periodically to that. And I think NAPA is saying that it should be uniform across the federal government.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Bob Tobias, professor in the key executive leadership program at American University. And to get back to that issue of responsibility that OPM would have. That’s not the same as authority. It’s not the same as having statutory ability to enforce something. And so I guess the essential question is, if the reforms were made as envisioned by NAPA, and they are extensive, would OPM then have that authority or would it just simply have greater responsibility?

Bob Tobias: I think it would have greater responsibility. And I think, hopefully, hopefully, Tom, that they would be able to partner with OMB in a way that would at the same time preserve the merit system and effectively implement the policy that OPM is creating, because OMB is dealing with agency about budget implementation year round, both in the creation and the implementation. They have the clout, they could make it happen if there was a real partnership between OPM and OMB.

Tom Temin: But that gets down to who’s running OMB and very often that is the person much closer to a given president than the OPM director. The OPM director, sometimes, you know, a couple rings out from real authority. So it becomes how much the OMB then would want to indulge in that partnership, I would think, and that’s a sticky one.

Bob Tobias: But NAPA responded to that by saying that OPM should be the sole resource to the president, and didn’t say, but in the past, the president has elevated the director of OPM to a seat in the cabinet, which would help in dealing with OMB.

Tom Temin: Well, yeah, that’s a philosophical question, I guess, because you’d say, you could say, given the title Office of Management and Budget, the director of OMB and the deputy director for management at OMB, they’re not exactly cabinet positions, but those are the closest to the president to begin with. And that still keeps OPM, Office of Personnel Management in that second ring out.

Bob Tobias: That’s correct. So how that gets solved was not specifically addressed by NAPA. And I think that could have been probably should have been addressed.

Tom Temin: In some ways, you could almost make an analogy. Strangely, it comes to mind now with NASA, because NASA has this deep expertise that exists nowhere else in all things space. So if you want to know anything about space, and you’re in the administration, you’ve got to go to NASA. Maybe if OPM knew everything there was to know and was the repository of all the best there is in personnel management and human capital, strategic management to use the GAOs word, then there’d be no choice of where you have to go to get information.

Bob Tobias: Which is why NAPA did focus on improving the expertise of OPM. And as you suggest, if I’m the repository, and you recognize that I’m the repository, you’re going to see to my expertise.

Tom Temin: Alright, so where do we go from here, then it’s really Congress’ ball. Well, I shouldn’t say that, because there were several recommendations for Congress to do with respect to Title 5, tweaking this in that as they cited chapter and verse, but half the assignments really were for OPM itself.

Bob Tobias: That’s correct. And this idea of focusing on policy in increasing its expertise, and creating this partnership that we’re talking about this morning, have nothing to do with statutory change, but only to do with how the institutions relate to each other in the interest of creating a more efficient and effective public service.

Tom Temin: So then the ideal situation at this point in time would be for the confirmed, when it is confirmed, OMB director and the OPM director under the single Biden administration who presumably cares about personnel management and human capital management, those two will get together and maybe form that partnership that you described.

Bob Tobias: I’m hoping so. I really am hoping so.

Tom Temin: Bob Tobias is professor in the key executive leadership program at American University. Thanks so much.

Bob Tobias: Thank you, Tom.

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