GAO raises concerns about quality of OPM official time data

By Elise Garofalo
Federal News Radio

The Government Accountability Office is raising concerns over the quality of the Office of Personnel Management data on official time.

The GAO study, released Nov. 18, found that the amount of official time could be much higher than agencies report, and questioned OPM’s methodology for data collection.

OPM collects data on use of official time by employees for union-related work and released a report on fiscal 2012 data on Oct. 3

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In the GAO report, OPM admitted official time reporting is “not a priority at this time” and that it has been using the same methodology since 2002.

OPM published its latest report after the urging of several members of Congress, who were concerned by OPM Director Katherine Archuleta’s July 2013 testimony in which she expressed doubt that the report would be published.

GAO analyzed the data on 10 selected agencies and found discrepancies. For example, OPM has no reporting requirements for official time. Instead, it asks agencies to verify data that they have previously reported through OPM’s Enterprise Human Resource Integration (EHRI) database. OPM officials say the verification process is both time and labor intensive.

The Department of Commerce, for example, reported 13,342 hours to EHRI, but that number jumped to 34,345 when GAO asked the agency to report hours directly to them.

One problem is that each agency manages official time differently. For example, the Veterans Affairs Department’s union work is divided among more than 200 facilities and 18 unions for about 265,000 bargaining unit employees.

On the other hand, the National Science Foundation has one union that represents more than 900 employees. Most agencies use a “reasonable time” approach to managing official time, which means no set amount of hours are allotted for union activities. This is opposed to a specified number of hours or a set of hours based on designated positions.

GAO found issue with OPM’s cost estimate of official time and said that a reliable estimate must be supported by detailed documentation so that results are replicable. GAO did acknowledge that OPM methodology is a “relatively straightforward and reasonable labor equation,” but urged OPM to make its methodology readily available for independent analysis.

The GAO report stressed that accurate data is needed to ensure that official time is used properly and that the proper congressional oversight is enacted.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said, “taxpayers have the right to know the true cost of the union activity they are funding,” and that the study shows that the government is “falling short” in its monitoring of official time. He said changes must be made to prevent underreporting.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, was particularly outraged by the high use of official time by the VA, which reported more than 1 million hours in 2012.

“With veterans literally dying waiting to see a doctor, VA staff should be focused on fulfilling the promises made to America’s heroes rather than on performing union duties to secure greater benefits for themselves,” he said in a release.

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) had urged OPM previously to release the report. He said GAO’s analysis “confirms that more work needs to be done to ensure transparency and accountability when reporting official time.” He said the government is prioritizing “big labor” over American families.

“As long as taxpayers are forced to subsidize union activity, they should — at the minimum — have access to reliable data that shows where their hard-earned money is being spent,” Gingrey said in a release.

J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, downplayed the discrepancies between OPM and GAO data, saying that the report “shows that even accountants don’t always agree on the best way to keep track of data.”

He said despite criticizing accounting procedures, GAO “never even tries to suggest that OPM misstates or misrepresents official time data.”

He placed confidence in both sets of data, saying “both have strengths and weaknesses, and both are good faith efforts to present an accurate report.”

Colleen Kelley, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said NTEU supports accurate reporting on the use of official time, and that official time “amounts to a tiny fraction (less than one-tenth of 1 percent) of federal salaries, but leads to more efficient and productive labor management relations and improvements in services to the public.”

GAO recommended that OPM consider alternative approaches to coming up with its cost estimate and work with agencies to improve data collection. OPM partially concurred, but cited concerns over implementation costs and limits on its authority.

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