Closing OPM’s skills gaps: A simple solution

Ronald Sanders, a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, retired career member of the Senior Executive Service, and former OPM associate direc...

When Federal News Network’s Drew Friedman interviewed me about GAO’s recent report on skills gaps at OPM, I shared with her a “simple solution” that bears further discussion and debate, one that goes beyond the most recent headlines regarding the agency’s action, or lack thereof, regarding its skills gaps (after all, we’ve heard all the problems and promises before) and actually help reposition the Office of Personnel Management from “compliance cop” to strategic consultant.

That solution, one we tried to implement at OPM when I was there but just ran out of time, involves creating a ‘hostage exchange’ program that would transform the federal government’s senior human capital leaders — including both agency and major bureau chief human capital officers and OPM’s own senior career staff — so that all of them shed the current “us vs. them” mentality and focus on the government’s human capital needs, across the board and agency-by-agency, not as adversaries but as a team!

Pollyannaish? Maybe, but there is a way to make this work.

Here’s how: The OPM director would simply declare that as of some date certain (hopefully sometime very soon!) “previous agency (or major subcomponent) CHCO experience” would be a mandatory qualification requirement for all of its senior supervisory positions, starting with its associate director and deputy associate director jobs.

And concomitantly — with the express concurrence of the CHCO Council and its parent body, the President’s Management Council — agencies would similarly declare that ‘previous OPM senior/supervisory experience’ would be a mandatory qualification for all of their agency and subcomponent (and comparable) CHCO positions.

I said it was simple.

I also know this is easier said than done.

But the net result would be transformational, especially over time, ensuring that the federal civil service/HR community’s senior leaders had all walked a mile in each other’s shoes. Senior leaders at both OPM and at its constituent agencies (and eventually their staffs), would cease being arm’s length adversaries and actually be able to talk to one another — and more importantly, trust each other — knowing that they each had each other’s best interests at heart, all grounded in common, shared experience.

After all, the merit system and individual agency needs are not at all mutually exclusive, even though they sometimes seem so in the heat of bureaucratic battle! But merit principles and agency flexibility are not an “either/or” choice.

A history lesson: Starting with a chip on a shoulder

This may sound too drastic to many (indeed, some may even argue that it violates those same merit principles!), so it may be helpful to look at the thinking — and the history — behind it.

When I left the IRS in 2002 to become OPM’s associate director for strategic HR policy (a fancy title that I’ll confess to conjuring up myself), I was part of a concerted effort by newly confirmed OPM Director Kay Coles James to infuse “new blood” into the agency’s senior leadership ranks, an effort that involved opening up all of OPM’s top two levels of management — the associate directors who reported directly to her, as well as the deputy associate directors who reported directly to them — to full and open competition, with agency and/or comparable external (for example, private sector or union) experience as the single most important qualification requirement.

Why? Because then, as now, most agencies observed that OPM had become unduly insular, focused almost exclusively on its self-appointed role as “compliance cop,” regulatory enforcer and sole keeper of the hallowed Merit System, all coming at the expense of helping agencies meet their often-unique human capital needs. Indeed, then, as now, agencies would go to great lengths to avoid OPM’s “just say no” scrutiny, as well as its “one size must fit all” mentality and search out their own flexibilities on the Hill.

I knew those lengths first-hand, as I came to OPM from agencies that had successfully sought them — at the time, I had just spent four years as chief HR officer of the IRS, implementing a set of then-breakthrough personnel flexibilities bestowed on us by the landmark IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998. And before that, I was head of civilian personnel at the Defense Department, were we had mastered the art of going our own way, as evidenced by Voluntary Separation Incentive Pay, the Defense Civilian Intelligence Personnel System, Lab and Acquisition Demos and so many other DoD-only programs.

So, I’ll admit to coming to OPM with a chip on my shoulder, ready to turn an insular and unresponsive “compliance cop” into a “we’re really here to help” strategic consultant. But my three associate director peers and I (all of us from outside OPM) found something quite different: A technical staff second to none, one absolutely committed to merit as an overarching principle, but also steeped in the nuances of the civil service system’s inherent flexibilities. And all they needed was a little strategic leadership from the “fifth floor,” what they used to call the director’s suite and front office in the Teddy Roosevelt Building.

To be sure, that technical staff, as good as they were, were all OPM “lifers” who had little if any agency experience, and what sparse agency background there was ancient, convincing most agencies that they needed to do all they could to avoid OPM. Something that persists to this day. I was probably the OPM staff’s worst nightmare in that regard, someone who’d publicly admitted to doing so successfully, at IRS and before that, at DoD.

But to make a relatively short story even shorter, we all quickly found common ground, a “both/and” mindset that focused on ferreting out and leveraging the flexibilities already embedded in the current system to help agencies meet their strategic human capital needs, individually and overall. It wasn’t easy, to be sure, given the current system, but we found a way. We even went so far as to develop legislation that would have specifically enabled that duality, the Working for America Act.

Building trust in the federal human capital community

In other words, we learned to trust one another, and in so doing, agencies began to trust OPM. But that trust is perishable. It atrophies over time. And it has become clear from congressional oversight, as well as NAPA’s own study of the agency, that’s exactly what has happened.

But it can be fixed with a little strategic forethought, and a little back-bone

Indeed, while the shared OPM/CHCO experiential requirement is enough to light the fuse, I would go beyond that, especially in the interest of time.

How? By setting up a formal “hostage exchange,” better known as a career development program (with an office to run it) that would match agency and bureau CHCOs (or even better, their officially intended successors) with OPM staff vacancies and vice versa, but on a time-limited tour basis, say two-to-three years in duration. That way, those who venture out would have a way back to their agencies or OPM (as the case may be), but with experience in another’s shoes under their belts, as well as a stake in their mutual success.

Thus, this requirement can not only be established prospectively, but it can also be managed at an accelerated pace, much like DoD manages the movement of its general and flag officers, to quickly become a reality. That would help make its impact that much more immediate. And at the risk of stating the obvious, that impact is apolitical. It would make the federal human capital community better regardless of administration and political party.

So, what’s stopping us?

Ron Sanders is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and a retired career member of the Senior Executive Service. He also served as director of civilian personnel at the Defense Department, chief human resources officer for IRS, associate director of OPM, CHCO for the U.S. intelligence community, and chairman of the Federal Salary Council. 


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