Amidst the Trump administration’s somewhat murky efforts to reorganize the federal government, the future role of the Office of Personnel Management is, to put it mildly, uncertain.
As Federal News Network first reported, the administration is aiming to diminish OPM’s central role as the governmentwide belly button for HR and civilian hiring.
Another massive step in that direction would be to remove the Defense civilian workforce from OPM’s administrative authority. Those workers make up nearly 40 percent of the total population of federal civil servants, but Mark Esper, the secretary of the Army, strongly believes they should be removed from OPM’s control altogether.
“They’re not bad people. They’re trying to construct a system that’s as fair as possible for a lot of patriotic Americans who want to work for the federal government,” he said. “But it’s not working, and I’d like to get control of it.”
“Control” would mean that the Defense Department would manage its own processes for hiring and managing its civilian workforce. Esper’s comments, made at a luncheon address to Army civilian employees, mostly addressed the federal hiring system.
‘A fundamentally flawed system’
The vast majority of open civilian positions are advertised via the USAJobs.gov website. The recruiting process that flows from those job advertisements, he said, is badly broken.
“I think any system where you have to go on a website and assert that you’re an expert in anything forces people to be dishonest,” he said. “If the tricks of the trade are to read the job description and then mimic it back, it’s a fundamentally flawed system.”
Esper said he has not delved into too many details about how a replacement for the current hiring system would work in practice, but said that he’s held some initial discussions with members of Congress about a new one that would be operated by the Defense Department instead.
“And then I can have input on it,” he said. “I can work with the secretary of Defense, and the deputy secretary, to build a system that gets rid of all of those artificialities and all of the gaming that’s inherent in [USAJobs], and maybe takes a forward-looking approach. I’m not satisfied with a hiring system that takes 140 days.”
Even worse, from Esper’s point of view: the current goal for improvement is to reduce the government’s time-to-hire to about 80 days.
“That’s not how the private sector works,” he said. “If you were to say ‘I’m going to hire you in 80 days,’ people would walk. The goal I’ve given my folks is 30 to 45 days. I don’t know if we’re going to get there, but we’re going to push hard.”
Shortcomings in the governmentwide approach to civilian personnel onboarding aren’t limited to the initial hiring process, Esper said. He believes the background investigations that are needed for many of its civilian personnel in order to gain security clearances could be finished in less than a week, using one page of documentation, if the clearance process were to be conducted “as the law intended.”
How successful he’ll be remains to be seen, but it’s far from the first time the Defense Department has attempted to assert more control over its civilian workforce and differentiate itself from the rest of the government’s civil service.
In 2015, advisors to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter urged the Obama administration to remove DoD employees from the jurisdiction of Title 5, the section of the U.S. Code that governs the federal workforce, and place them under Title 10, the section that governs military members and is controlled by DoD.
The draft recommendation would have required congressional approval, but was never formally sent to Capitol Hill.
More recently, the department has explicitly sought to exempt itself from broader Trump Administration efforts to shrink the federal workforce, saying its civilian workforce is essential to its core missions, and growth is warranted in at least some areas.
DoD’s civilian workforce is in the business of protecting the American way of life, not regulating or governing it,” Defense officials wrote in a wide-ranging “Business Operations Plan” they quietly posted online earlier this year. “While it may be appropriate for other federal agencies to reduce their civilian workforce, for the DoD, right-sizing will necessitate targeted growth to both restore readiness and increase the lethality, capability, and capacity of our military force.”