NAPA’s OPM findings make too much sense for today’s Washington

Will NAPA's recommendations for OPM melt like a snowball on a hot Capitol plaza?

Here’s a multiple choice question: How should the federal workforce be managed?

A. As a politically-driven function, shifting according to who is in the White House.

B. Offset from politics, and run according to an objective set of best practices in human capital.

That’s the essential question the National Academy of Public Administration set out to answer in its monumental report to Congress, issued yesterday. Not surprisingly, NAPA picked B.

NAPA found: “OPM has neither a strategic planning office nor an overarching policy office to look across the Agency, and the Federal Government, to facilitate a workforce human capital lifecycle
perspective—from recruitment to separation and retirement—in developing policy, regulations,
and guidance; providing services; and crafting and sharing promising practices.”

Further: “The Director should be the principal advisor to the President on human capital, as envisioned in the Civil Service Reform Act, and OPM should be that lead for federal civilian human capital, setting policy, establishing a framework for agencies to manage their workforces, facilitating innovation and the sharing of best practices and lessons learned, and both collecting and using data and data analytics.”

But it isn’t and doesn’t.

The five NAPA members — NAPA calls them fellows — who led the study have lots of federal experience. Ellen Tunstall, for instance, worked at OPM itself during the Clinton and Bush administrations. David Walker ran the Government Accountability Office for 10 years. Janet Hale had many federal management jobs, plus stints on Capitol Hill, in academia, and at associations. A solid group.

You’ll need some intestinal fortitude to get through the whole report, at 114 pages. Neither a 9/11 Commission-sized tome, nor a 2-page PDF — it’s hard to neatly summarize, and I won’t try. But the basic findings include that OPM needs three things: more independence, more authority over workforce policies covering every civilian employee — emphasis on “every” — and more budget to modernize and operate better.

That’s in pointed contrast to the Trump administration’s plan to put OPM’s policy functions in the Office of Management and Budget and its operational functions into the General Services Administration. The way OPM has operated — that is, not very good at anything — that plan wasn’t altogether nuts. It reflected a reality that personnel policy has been becoming more politicized for years, a phenomenon perhaps the Trump administration brought out in sharper relief. The authors note that the Trump administration sent 89 political appointees to OPM in its single term. The Obama administration sent 73 in two terms. In his two terms, President Reagan sent 38.

In any case, the panel made short work of the Trump plan: “The Academy Panel did not find that the problems or challenges identified in the proposal would be resolved by transferring OPM functions to OMB and GSA.”

Instead it recommends tasks for Congress, such as tweaks to the Title 5 enabling sections and other laws, and for OPM itself. Although the recommendations don’t address the White House, OPM will need good-faith backing of the Biden and any subsequent administrations to get to the envisioned state.

I fully expected NAPA to make one recommendation it did not make. Namely, why not lengthen the OPM director slot to a 10-year term appointment? That would give OPM the sustained leadership it would need to make even some of the recommended reforms, and help lift it out of the political yo-yo state. But the authors concluded that the current 4-year appointment has the potential to span administrations. And in any case, when was the last time OPM had a director that lasted even four years? The panel did, though, recommend Congress establish an OPM chief management officer with a 5-year term.

I also expected NAPA to recommend OPM jettison the job of preparing federal retirement annuities. Instead, a couple of recommendations aim to strengthen OPM’s ability to do this production function. Perhaps the authors made an analogy: If Treasury can operate the U.S. Mint and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, then OPM can process retirement applications.

So NAPA has posited a really knotty challenge: How does a more independent, best-practice—oriented (and, of course, data-driven) OPM become the go-to advisor to presidents on all matters relating to federal human capital, when Oval Office occupancy has devolved into what one scholar has called dueling executive orders? How does Congress sustain interest not only in OPM, but in the federal workforce itself, when neither chamber’s government oversight committees has a subcommittee on civil service? The NAPA panel recommended putting those subcommittees back.

The NAPA report is thorough, workmanlike, evidence-supported, non-partisan and earnest. It offers a list of 23 specific ideas. It was produced by qualified, well-meaning people supported by a thorough staff. Which is why it may have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever happening in today’s Washington.

I hope I’m wrong.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Alazar Moges

The first time the five ringed Olympic flag was flown was on August 14, 1920 at Antwerp Olympic Stadium in Belgium. This flag was designed by Pierre de Coubertin in 1913.

Source: Olympic Organization

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