President’s 2017 budget tackles OPM, governmentwide trouble areas

Though funding for the Office of Personnel Management would remain largely the same from fiscal 2016 to 2017, the devil is in the details.

President Barack Obama’s 2017 budget request targets specific trouble areas within OPM and the federal workforce at large, reflecting governmentwide trends to close critical mission gaps and to finish what it already started on cybersecurity.

OPM would receive $37 million more in funding for its IT and cybersecurity programs across the board.

The agency’s Office of the Chief Information Officer could get $55 million in 2017, $24 million more than what it’s projected to spend this year, and far more than the $15 million the OCIO spent in 2015.

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OPM’s Inspector General would have $4.9 million more in 2017 — resources that would largely go toward oversight on the agency’s cybersecurity, systems security enhancements and system migration into the OPM IT Infrastructure.

The President’s targeted request comes less than one year after OPM discovered critical IT vulnerabilities that led to two major cyber breaches.

But more cybersecurity funding is just the start for OPM.

“The President’s budget provides vital investments that OPM needs to continue its important work to strengthen and modernize our information technology infrastructure and to increase the number of critical staff who can serve federal employees and their families as they transition to retirement and beyond,” acting OPM Director Beth Cobert said in a statement.

Federal pay and benefits

The Office of Management and Budget sees the few changes it’s proposing to federal employee pay and benefits as a win, citing progress the administration made on trimming the federal deficit and holding inflation rates low.

“Particularly with the second year of the budget deal being less than [what] the President had called for in his budget, we had difficult choices to make in a number of areas,” OMB Director Shaun Donovan said during a Feb. 9 press conference. “One of those is the tough choice about how much we should be increasing pay for federal workers.”

Obama is calling for a 1.6 percent pay raise for civilian and military employees in fiscal 2017.

Based on the President’s recommendations for federal pay and benefits in 2017 and Employee Cost Level index pay adjustments for fiscal 2018 and beyond, OMB expects it will save $260 billion in federal benefits costs over the next decade.

Under proposed legislation from OPM, federal employees would get up to six weeks of paid parental leave. It would let employees use sick days to care for a new child.

Agency budget requests for salaries and other expenses will cover the costs of these programs, the President’s request said.

Obama’s proposal does not ask that federal employees contribute more toward their retirement funds this year.

OPM could receive an additional $1.5 million in 2017 for more staff members to respond to requests and process claims at the agency’s Retirement Services Center.

The President also is proposing five changes to the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program (FEHBP), which, if approved, would go into effect in fiscal 2018:

  1. Let OPM contract separately for pharmaceutical benefits
  2. Allow OPM to enter into contracts with a larger variety of health plan options
  3. Adjust health plan premiums based on a federal employee’s participation in a wellness program for his/her tobacco use
  4. Extend the temporary health benefit to infants of FEHBP dependents for 30 days
  5. Add FEHBP to the Anti-Kickback Statute

Changes to the FEHBP would save OPM at least $54 million in 2018 and nearly $110 million in 2019, the budget proposal stated.

Engagement, skills gaps in the federal workforce

The President’s request also builds off several initiatives and programs already underway at OPM.

“We have major investments in training, in employee engagement,” Donovan said. “We’ve been encouraged that the Employee Viewpoint Survey across the federal government showed real progress. In fact for the first time in history, every single question in that survey showed positive movement. There wasn’t a single question where results went down, and we think that’s a measure of the progress that we’re making.”

Developing the Senior Executive Service will be a major priority for OPM in 2017, as the President’s executive order on SES reform indicated at the end of last year.

For example, OPM will launch a SES performance and accountability education campaign in 2016, according to the request. The agency will host webinars each quarter to share training ideas and SES performance best practices.

“OPM is establishing an expert team to consult two or three agencies to address SES conduct and performance challenges,” the budget request said. “OPM will help agencies assess SES performance management systems and programs, prepare action plans and provide technical assistance.”

A larger federal workforce?

Though the size of the federal workforce has steadily declined in recent decades, OMB predicts a 1.5 percent increase in fiscal 2017.

Some agencies will see larger increases than others, based on the skills and mission gaps the administration hopes it can fill next fiscal year.

An OPM working group has already identified five mission critical occupations that need targeted attention from agency hiring specialists, like economists, auditors, acquisition, human resources and IT and cybersecurity specialists. Hiring more cyber experts will get special attention from agencies this year.

OPM, in partnership with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council and the Defense Department, will identify other skills gaps that need further work in 2016, the budget request said.

OMB is pouring more resources into some agencies that are seeing a higher demand for their services.

The Veterans Affairs Department, for example, will see a 4.8 percent bump in the size of its workforce next year, to respond to a “wave of veterans that we are bringing back from overseas,” Donovan said.

The Labor and Education departments could see a 4.7 percent increase in the size of its workforce. The Treasury Department could see a 4 percent bump.

Smaller agencies, like the Securities and Exchange Commission and Equal Employment Opportunity, would see a 6.5 percent and 4.3 percent increase in their workforces, respectively.

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