Six challenges Biden’s new OPM nominee will face

President Joe Biden checked off a key item for federal employees last week, when he announced Kiran Ahuja as his pick to lead the Office of Personnel Management.

The OPM director isn’t a member of the president’s cabinet, — some think it should be! — but it’s an important position for most feds, regardless of where they work.

Ahuja served as OPM’s chief of staff for a year or two during the Obama administration. If confirmed, she’ll be the first South Asian and first Asian American woman to lead OPM.

Ahuja also spent six years as executive director of President Barack Obama’s White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and several years as career civil rights attorney for the Justice Department.

For those interested in seeing some stability and leadership at the agency, nominating a new OPM director in the first month of the administration is a good sign.

Here are six challenges that Ahuja might contend with if she’s confirmed to lead OPM.

Funding

This isn’t the sexiest of topics, but OPM can’t accomplish much if it doesn’t have the funding to do so.

The agency’s inspector general has pointed to this problem, which stems from a 2016 decision to move defense-related security clearances — and later the whole business — to the Pentagon. The Defense Department eventually took over the governmentwide security clearance in October 2019.

OPM brought in over $2 billion through the security clearance business, which funded other parts of the agency’s operations. Without that revenue, OPM has to rely on Congress for appropriated funding.

The agency has received a few budget boosts in the last two years, but advocates of OPM say it needs a secure funding stream to make progress on longstanding IT, cybersecurity and modernization challenges.

Remote work

Remote work isn’t going away, even after it’s safe to pack a government office building with people again.

Many chief human capital officers have recognized there’s no going back: Telework, at least in some capacity, is here to stay.

Agencies have figured out now how to recruit, vet and onboard new people, and some of them are hiring talent from various locations across the country, with no immediate plans to have them move or visit the building any time soon.

Agencies have made leaps and bounds on telework in the last year, but governmentwide remote work policies haven’t kept up. CHCOs say there’s an opportunity to revisit those policies and create new ones that meet the moment.

I’m willing to bet the average fed is most interested in how OPM might tackle this challenge too.

Retirement services

This topic is a minefield for prospective and new OPM directors. I say this, partly, because the federal employees processing your retirement paperwork work out of an actual old mine.

I’ve covered nomination hearings for four prospective OPM directors now, and every single one of them has talked about retirement services.

It’s too slow, too paper-based, too outdated. We’ve heard it all. Trump’s last OPM nominee didn’t have a ton of government personnel experience, but he knew to mention retirement services and vowed to improve it.

He didn’t get far, as his nomination never got a committee vote.

The Government Accountability Office has been tracking OPM’s efforts to improve and modernize retirement services for more than two decades. Few efforts have made much headway, but Biden’s new OPM nominee will likely promise to try.

Diversity and inclusion

We know diversity, inclusion and equity is a top priority for the Biden administration. Agencies that have confirmed secretaries in place have, on multiple occasions, talked about their desire to have their workforces better reflect the nation’s population.

The State Department recently announced the creation of a new diversity and inclusion officer position.

In a recent speech, new Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas vowed to create a more inclusive cybersecurity workforce.

As a former director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Ahuja has experience in this space too. And as the people agency, we might expect OPM to take a central role.

Hiring

Like retirement services, hiring in the federal government has become a perennial challenge.

The Trump administration looked for administrative changes and pilot programs that might help shorten or improve the hiring process.

Under acting OPM Director Beth Cobert, the Obama administration focused on reeducating and training agency hiring managers, who may have been unfamiliar with all the authorities and tools at their disposal under the current systems.

Few administrations have pushed for huge, major reforms to the federal hiring process, which would likely need support and interest from Congress.

It remains to be seen what approach the Biden administration, with help from OPM, will take.

The merger

It’s the elephant in the room after the previous administration suggested merging OPM with the General Services Administration and moving its policy functions to the Office of Management and Budget.

For the most part, the merger itself didn’t happen. And Congress quashed any hope of moving OPM’s more prominent functions with legislation.

Still, the merger created uncertainty and dim morale for OPM’s employees, and it drove many long-time executives to retire or find a new agency. Two previous Senate-confirmed OPM directors were fired or quit over the merger debate and disagreements over the agency’s broader role in government.

The National Academy of Public Administration is wrapping up a review of OPM and its statutory functions. The report and NAPA’s recommendations are due to Congress in a few weeks, and OPM will have a chance to respond to them.

The new OPM director will have to contend with a big question: what’s next?

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Alazar Moges

In  1870, 50 years before the 19th amendment gave all women the right to vote in the United States, a woman named Louisa Swain cast a historic ballot for the general election in Laramie, Wyoming. This was thanks to a law passed the year before in the Territory of Wyoming giving women over the age of 21 the right to vote and hold public office. She was the first woman in the country to cast a vote at the same level as a man.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine

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