Dismantling the argument for dismantling OPM

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.

Former Office of Personnel Management Director Linda Springer systematically dismantled the argument for doing away with OPM during her testimony on Tuesday afternoon before the House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee. Springer, who served as OPM director from June 2005 — August 2008, methodically built a case for revitalizing OPM rather than dismantling it. The testimony was remarkable in its directness, avoiding the pablum, sugarcoating and coded language that is common in government. She said “I also believe this proposal is not a presidential initiative, but rather the culmination of years of intent by [the Office of Management and Budget], spanning administrations of both political parties, to acquire ownership of personnel management policy from OPM.”

Her full written statement is here. Springer’s views on the proposal are significant because she is a longtime Republican, a President George W. Bush-appointed OPM director, and she worked for the Trump transition and as an adviser during the early days of the administration.

Her conclusion was that, while OPM has strengths and weaknesses and some significant problems that must be corrected, the solution is to fix OPM rather than abolishing it. Here is a summary from her statement:

“Like other departments and agencies, OPM needs to refocus on its core statutory mission and original intent. It needs to eliminate functions that are duplicative, obsolete, low value or peripheral to its mission. This was the essence of the federal government reform program that was launched early in this administration. I led the initial months of that initiative when I served as senior advisor to the management area of OMB. I can confidently say that what has emerged as the OPM reorganization plan was never in view during my tenure, nor would it have seen the light of day.

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“OPM has always had deep federal personnel policy knowledge and subject matter expertise. Many of OPM’s responsibilities are executed reliably and accurately. Remarkably, over the past year since the announcement of the plan to carve up their agency, OPM employees have continued their dedicated service. However, OPM must finally evolve from its reputation of sluggish service delivery and antiquated technology. In some instances, this profile is very real and in others it is mostly a perception. It really doesn’t matter which is the case. OPM’s services need to become more visionary and innovative in content as well as delivery. It needs to incorporate such techniques as predictive analytics to anticipate the personnel management demands of the future and move to a proactive, rather than reactive, posture.”

Springer supported the move of background investigations to the Defense Department, but did not agree with moving OPM’s fee-for-service work to the General Services Administration. She was particularly critical of the idea of moving workforce policy to OMB, saying “The proposal places federal personnel policy setting right back in a place where the spoils and patronage system had taken hold. At best the optics are terrible. But even worse is the opportunity it creates for enabling a return to unfair personnel practices. Mechanisms for appealing such practices would still exist, but why create a situation that retreats from the statutory safeguard of having personnel policy set in an independent agency?”

Springer is not a bomb thrower. She is not the type of person who would take a stand so strongly without having deeply held convictions that it is the right thing to do. Some would argue that former OPM directors are mostly very protective of the agency and its people, but in this case I believe there is more to Springer’s testimony than loyalty to her former colleagues and agency. She is pushing back hard against a proposal from an administration she served, and most likely harming relationships with the White House in the process. At the beginning of her testimony she said “As a retired individual with no employment relationships, I have no other motivation and do not stand to gain in any way from the ultimate outcome of these deliberations. My insights are based on 15 years of leading and advising federal agencies. As the director of the agency that is the target of the reorganization proposal, OPM, the controller and head of the Office of Federal Financial Management at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and a senior adviser to the OMB management area, as well as years of assisting agency management leaders as an outside adviser, I have credible, relevant experience behind the things I’m going to share with you.”

Earlier in the hearing, acting OPM Acting Director Margaret Weichert made the case that OPM’s financial status is perilous, which I believe is an accurate assessment. She argued that OPM’s mission is too critical to risk failure, which is also true. Other witnesses and members of the Committee argued that the administration is trying to dismantle the civil service. After my own discussions with Weichert, I believe she is acting in good faith and without malice toward the civil service or federal workers.

I also believe the proposal needed far more work before it saw the light of day. At this point the extensive due diligence we would expect to see with a proposal of this magnitude is missing. Although I think there is virtually nothing the administration could say that would convince both the House and Senate to support abolishing OPM, a much better case could be made for moving some of the fee-for service work to GSA.

A strong argument can be made that it presents a conflict of interest to make policy and then sell services and provide oversight of those policies and services. Policy and oversight go together and are the core mission of OPM. Among the fee-based services, one could make a good case that OPM’s outstanding leader development training, such as the Federal Executive Institute, is so closely related to the core mission that it belongs in OPM as well. The same case could be made for other services such as running USAJobs.

Selling routine human capital consulting services is different. GSA leads government shared services efforts, and has a strong track record on selling services of various types. GSA could effectively bundle and sell shared services that include human capital, most likely via a mix of contractor and government resources. It already manages the HCATS contract vehicle. Such a move would eliminate any hint of an organizational conflict of interest and would allow OPM to focus on its vital core mission.

At this point, any legislative movement to authorize dismantling OPM is most likely dead in the water. The real question is what Congress and the administration will do next. Will they address OPM’s financial weaknesses? Will they plus up the appropriated dollars or increase fees to agencies to put OPM on a sound financial footing? Will OPM become more modern in its thinking, eliminate the bureaucratic hurdles that delay policy development, and embrace a more flexible approach to workforce policy? Will they listen to agencies more and become more responsive to the mission needs of their customers?

If those things do not happen, this discussion will happen over and over until something breaks. That is not in the best interest of a merit-based civil service any more than moving workforce policy to the White House would be.

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Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.