The government’s people agency has a growing task list of its own

The Office of Personnel Management doesn't hire people to work at federal agencies. But it has a lot of influence over how agencies hire people. And it provides...

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) doesn’t hire people to work at federal agencies, but it has a lot of influence over how agencies hire people and it provides crucial shared services to help agencies manage their workforces. This year the Government Accountability Office added three high priority recommendations for OPM to improve things.  GAO Director of Strategic Issues Michelle Sager joined The Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript

Tom Temin  I guess this latest kind of summary of the recommendations for OPM relates to GAO’s greater concern about strategic management of the workforce. Fair to say?

Michelle Sager  Well, first and foremost, thank you so much for having me on the program. It’s always a pleasure to be with you and have a chance to talk about GAO’s work. So these letters, as you know from talking about many of them with other executives, they focus on the highest priority recommendations from GAO, where if action is taken, the agency leaders can really improve the federal government. And so that’s the focus and of course, OPM has both its own specific issues that relate to OPM as a federal agency, but then also given the role that they play in helping other federal agencies addressing various human capital management issues, there’s really great potential to improve government operations across the entire federal government.

Tom Temin  Alright, with respect to OPM, you have added a couple of priority recommendations though, just since I guess earlier this year, having to do with Title 5 special payment authorities and so forth. Tell us what’s new here that you’re asking  Kiran Ahuja to handle over at OPM?

Michelle Sager  Definitely. So to put it all in context, OPM has right now about 68 open recommendations. And our government wide implementation rate that we issued in November 2021 is about 76% of open recommendations implemented within four years. For OPM, that implementation rate is about 56%. So it’s a little bit lower than government wide. However, it is important to point out that they did take action on two of the open recommendations that we had in our 2021 priority recommendation report. The two that you mentioned related to Title 5 special payment authorities and then also developing and implementing some role based training requirements for staff who monitored the security of agency’s information systems. So they have made progress on those fronts, and that is always good to see. And then in the letter itself, it goes into detail about what the recommendations are and what OPM is planning in terms of its next steps. So for the open recommendations that we added the three new ones this year, focus on really two main areas. First is improving OPM payroll data system. Two of the recommendations fall in that area. And then second, is strengthening IT security and management, we elevated one of our open recommendations to be a priority recommendation.

Tom Temin  And that comes just as there are settlement deals being worked out in court for people that might have been affected by the OPM data breach, nearly 10 years ago now.

Michelle Sager  That’s correct. So that continues to be a really important area. And in fact, six of the open priority recommendations fall in the area of strengthening IT security and management. That’s critically important given literally the millions of federal employees that are affected by the data in OPM systems.

Tom Temin  And with respect to the payroll data, does that have to do with OPM’s ability to quickly determine annuity benefits for people that retire? Because that’s been kind of a bugaboo for many years, how long it takes to get that final annuity worked out.

Michelle Sager  So four of the open recommendations relate to payroll data, and they really focus on something will sound familiar to people who live in that world, but may not be so familiar to people who do not the EHRI, which is the data system that contains that payroll system. It’s the enterprise Human Resources Integration System, and that’s where the data are housed. So we’ve had a number of recommendations over many years that would help decision-making related to performance management but also provide, you know, the tools and the guidance that agencies need to know what is happening in terms of staffing and making resource decisions that can support missions across the government.

Tom Temin  We’re speaking with Michelle Sager, director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office. And what about the calculation of annuities? Is that another priority area or is that one pretty much under control and it just takes as long as it takes?

Michelle Sager  That is something that we have looked at historically, and that continues to be a focus of OPM. In fact, this year, they had issued their most recent strategic plan, which includes a number of priorities, and that of course includes the EHRI payroll data.

Tom Temin  And one of your recommendations that’s been standing now for some time is addressing employee misconduct and improving performance management. That misconduct front is not just for OPM employees, but for how they guide agencies government-wide on handling misconduct, because that also in some way relates to employees perception of the fairness and justice, if you will, in a workplace, which in turn affects rankings and the best places to work.

Michelle Sager  OPM does definitely play a role in ensuring that agencies have the tools as well as the guidance that they need so they can address any misconduct and also maximize the productivity of their workforces. And so that definitely has a link to the kinds of things related to employee engagement that we see reflected in the Best Places to Work rankings. So one of our priority recommendations is for OPM to improve the guidance to other federal agencies so that they can in turn effectively address employee misconduct and maximize the productivity of their workforce across the government.

Tom Temin  And earlier, we said that OPM has made progress on special payment authorities for recruitment and retention of certain people that are highly needed and difficult to hire in the government. But there’s another component to that, which is making hiring authorities more effective. And you hear this kind of year after year that agencies have, what is it, 110 different authorities within Title 5 that they can exercise but don’t? What’s your sense of what OPM can do there?

Michelle Sager  So one of our priority recommendations continues to be about improving the design, the management and the oversight of the federal classification system. And this particular open recommendation was made in 2014. So you’re right, it’s long standing. And OPM does plan to work with federal agencies. What we have said is that they should work with stakeholders that, of course, include federal agencies, and one of the ways they do that is through both the Office of Management and Budget, but also through chief human capital officers at other agencies and the Chief Human Capital Officer Council, or the CHCO Council, and look at prior studies and lessons learned across the government so that they can think about and then make recommendations to make the general schedule system more consistent with a modern effective classification system.

Tom Temin  And what kind of feedback on all of this are you getting from Ms. Ahuja? I mean, she came in to OPM, I guess about a year ago and it’s kind of like walking into a jungle that’s filled with a million kinds of bugs flying around and you’ve got a flyswatter. I mean, she’s got a lot on the plate there.

Michelle Sager  There are a lot of issues to address. I mean, just looking at the categories in the priority recommendation letter, improving federal classifications, making hiring authorities more effective, improving payroll data, addressing employee misconduct and strengthening IT security and management. That’s a lot to get your arms around. There has been some hiring at OPM most recently. They do have the new strategic plan, we have the new quarterly performance goals that we saw most recently from OMB. And then in the letter itself, there are some additional details about very specific actions that OPM plans to take, most of them within the calendar year and some of them by the end of the fiscal year. So we look forward to following up and seeing what progress they’re making as they follow through on these planned actions.

Tom Temin  And the government wide High Risk List is coming out in just a couple of months, right?

Michelle Sager  Our High Risk List will be issued again next year at the beginning of the new Congress and strategic human capital management is one of those high risk areas. And of course, OPM plays a critical role in making sure that happens both within OPM as well as across the government.

Tom Temin  Michelle Sager is director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office. As always, thanks so much for joining me.

Michelle Sager  Thank you so much. It’s my pleasure.


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