OPM needs a permanent director now

In February, President Joe Biden nominated Kiran Ahuja to be the director of the Office of Personnel Management. She has experience in the agency, having served as OPM chief of staff during the Obama administration. She also spent six years as the Obama-Biden administration executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, where she was the lead for efforts to increase access to federal services, resources and programs for underserved Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs).

The agency has been without a permanent leader since President Donald Trump’s last OPM director resigned in March 2019 after only six months on the job. In fact, Obama appointee John Berry was the last OPM director to serve a full four-year term. He left office in April 2013. In the eight years since, OPM has had three Senate-confirmed directors who served for 20 months (Katherine Archuleta), eight months (Jeff Pon) and six months (Dale Cabaniss). There have been six acting director appointments, with Kathleen McGettigan serving twice.

Virtually everyone who knows anything about the federal civil service agrees that OPM plays a vital role. They also agree that the agency needs a permanent leader who can accelerate the process of turning the agency around, hopefully by implementing the recommendations of the congressionally-mandated National Academy of Public Administration report on OPM. The NAPA report said, “Undoubtedly, the most significant leadership issue was the lack of sustained leadership at the director and deputy director levels, a situation crossing recent administrations. Vacancies create uncertainty and acting leaders generally lack the organizational and political clout to forge strong relationships with myriad stakeholders.”

It is clear that Ahuja is qualified to lead OPM, yet her nomination was voted out of committee with no Republican support. The reasons given for not voting for her sound like what someone would say if they were looking for a reason to say no, rather than truly disqualifying issues.

The need for an OPM director is real. The problems at OPM that require attention are real. The workforce gaps in the federal government in many agencies are real. The mission risk to agencies that are struggling to hire and retain talent are real. The constant turnover in the OPM director role is real.

OPM needs a permanent director now, not weeks or months or even years from now when it is convenient for Washington politics. My hope is that the Senate will vote on this nomination prior to the Memorial Day recess and that Ahuja will get a strong endorsement from senators who have shown their willingness to make bipartisan votes on serious issues, such as Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins and others. This one should not be that hard.

Jeff Neal authors the blog ChiefHRO.com and was previously the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.

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