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Dark cloud over OPM leaves employees fearing long-term damage


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Editor’s note: This is part 1 of a two-part special investigation by Federal News Network about the lasting impact the potential merger of the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration is having on OPM’s employees and missions. In part 2, we explore why some employees felt left in the dark over the merger plans.

A dark, gray cloud is hanging over the Office of Personnel Management.

Ask former OPM leaders when these clouds began to build and many would, and have, emphasized different points in the agency’s history.

But many OPM employees say the clouds have been building and growing darker over the past year, as the Office of Management and Budget has tried to pitch Congress — and the workforce — on its proposal to merge OPM with the General Services Administration.

Employees say the merger proposal over the past year has lowered their morale, created debilitating uncertainty and has crippled the agency and its mission for the long term, as OPM has shed years of institutional knowledge, lost key executives and delayed their own work.

“Morale is extremely through the floor,” one government official with knowledge of OPM’s inner workings said. “People are walking on egg shells and are worried about their futures. Why would anyone want to work at OPM at this point given what has happened over the last few years?”

On one hand, OPM employees see a glimmer of hope peeking out from behind the clouds. The agency has new permanent leadership and more funding than it did last year. Congress last week secured an additional $48 million in new appropriations for OPM, which, according to the Trump administration, faces a $70 million gap with the recent loss of its security clearance business.

An OPM employee said if nothing else, the merger talk did something the massive data breach and the last two administrations couldn’t do: Focus the Office of Management and Budget and Congress on the challenges the agency has been facing over the last 20 years.

“For the first time in a long time, there are some serious discussions about OPM, especially around appropriations,” the employee said. “Will it change anything? I’m not sure, but at least the issues are being raised to a high level.”

Regardless of what happens with the Trump administration’s merger plans, OPM is a vastly different organization today than it was a year ago.

For one thing, the governmentwide security clearance portfolio, along with the personnel and resources of the National Background Investigations Bureau, now officially lives at the Pentagon.

But even if NBIB is truly the only agency function that moves, OPM employees worry the damage is done.

Over the past six months, Federal News Network has spoken with 10 current and former OPM employees, who all requested anonymity to speak candidly about the merger, about the toll the past year has taken on the agency’s workforce, its mission and the organization as a whole.

“First we had a new acting director, then there was talk of the merger and then there was the shutdown,” one OPM employee said. “It was a rough year for the agency, and people are feeling that. It’s been really rough on morale.”

Current and former employees, as well as those close to the agency, say it could take years to rebuild OPM back to a point where it once was — or where it should be as the government’s human capital policy leader.

“You’re going to need to do a whole reconstitution of OPM,” a former employee said. “You’re going to need people who can do a triage to revive this organization again.”

Margaret Weichert, OMB’s deputy director for management who led OPM for nearly a year as the agency’s acting director, said she understands transitions and acknowledges change can be difficult for employees. But the NBIB move to the Pentagon should be evidence a merger isn’t a bad thing, she said.

“Time heals a lot of things,” Weichert said in an interview with Federal News Network. “If you talk to folks about the NBIB transition a year ago, many of the people who were experts on OPM said this wouldn’t happen or would be a disaster. That is not what we are seeing today. We were deliberate, thoughtful and had an inclusive process. We have been dealing with funding and technology issues. We have been worried about retention of employees, too. There have been bumps in the road, but we are on this journey where we have to get to the destination. It’s a matter of getting the right people in the right jobs with the right skills.”

A gradual brain drain at OPM

OPM’s data doesn’t show a mass exodus over the past year, but talent, especially at the middle and upper ranks of the agency, has slowly left.

Current and former OPM employees say it’s common to talk with coworkers about looking for another job.

“It’s become a little bit of an open, running joke that ‘oh, someone else is leaving,'” an OPM employee said. “Or look, there’s another going-away party; that’s the third one this week.”

According to OPM, the agency had a total of 5,542 employees as of the end of August, compared with 5,579 employees at the end of fiscal 2018 — a drop of just 37 workers.

Both the National Background Investigations Bureau and HR Solutions, though their headcounts have fluctuated over the past several months, are actively hiring more people.

NBIB, anticipating its Oct. 1 move to the Defense Department, had 77 more employees on board at the end of August than it did at the end of the fiscal 2018.

And HR Solutions, OPM’s other fee-for-service organization that offers products and services to help agencies with their human resources needs, is also staffing up under the expectation that it could move to GSA. It had a headcount of 416 employees at the end of 2018. As of August, it has a marginally larger workforce of 424.

Take NBIB out of the equation, and the data shows a slightly grimmer picture of the OPM workforce — one that started with a headcount of 2,706 at the end of 2018 and lost 114 employees over the past 11 months.

The numbers may seem minute, but for some small OPM organizations with as little as 20 people, the departures can and have become worrisome.

Click or tap each chart to enlarge

 

Weichert said the administration didn’t specifically forecast or predict how the OPM-GSA merger might impact attrition.

“While the overall levels of attrition are not out of a bandwidth of what we would expect in a transition, I am absolutely concerned when we lose great talent that I believe could contribute to the mission,” she said. “I’ve made no secret about the fact that the mission will continue. It’s critically important. It will need great talent to help us with the transition that’s ahead of us.”

Headcounts for nearly all of OPM’s remaining organizations — with the exception of the Office of Privacy and Information Management, a new entity established in February, and the Office of Congress, Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs — have declined or stayed flat over the past 11 months.

And while current and former OPM employees have said some functions have been able to fill vacant positions, most offices haven’t been so lucky.

OPM’s employee services organization, which develops, implements and oversees governmentwide pay, performance management, recruitment and hiring programs, has lost about 8% of its workforce, or 15 employees, over the past 11 months.

OPM’s own human resources office is at least 35% smaller now, having lost 18 employees since the end of 2018.

The agency’s communications shop, which had 18 employees in September 2018, has 11 people nearly a year later — a 42% drop.

CIO shop losing talent, lacks direction

OPM’s Office of the Chief Information Officer, which agency leaders and current and former employees have said has struggled to recruit top talent to the organization since the 2015 cybersecurity breaches, has also lost employees.

According to agency data, OPM’s OCIO counted 284 employees at the end of fiscal 2018. As of August, the organization had 268 workers.

At the same time, the Trump administration has used OPM’s struggles with technology modernization as a key point for why the merger with GSA has to occur.

Sources say the CIO’s office has struggled well before President Donald Trump came to office, but the merger talk has exacerbated the office’s problems over the last year.

Sources also say there is a lack of strategic planning and decision making. The CIO’s office has lost people, resources and time to modernize much-needed systems and applications for key mission areas like retirement and personnel files.

“The challenges with the CIO’s office really started with the prior administration,” one source said. “They had been gutting the leadership of OPM for some time. We would put money for IT in the budget and then would be told to take 15-to-20% off the top because they needed to find money for other stuff. We got less and less money until it got to the point where we had no capability to do anything but keep the systems running. This administration comes in and is working against us by fanning the fires that our systems are problematic. The Hill should be wary of the snake oil they are selling.”

OMB’s Weichert said she had deep concerns about the Office of the CIO, particularly around the hiring of technology employees.

It was one of the reasons why OPM entered into an interagency agreement with GSA to address technology shortcomings, she said.

Despite these challenges, OPM is widely considered to have some of the best cybersecurity outside of the National Security Agency and other Defense Department components.

Sources say the Homeland Security Department performed a penetration test on OPM’s networks and struggled to break through their defenses.

Sources also say OPM has made real progress in modernizing its systems no matter what the administration says. For instance, the agency had a huge backlog of Windows 2003 servers in 2015 and within a short time period, upgraded to modern systems.

In addition, while some applications still run on mainframes, the underlying hardware is brand new, sources said. Over the last three years, OPM had improved its IT infrastructure, particularly in dealing with the disparate technology oversight and approaches the agency once used.

But when former OPM CIO David Garcia left in February 2019, these efforts started to fall apart. Sources pointed to the demise of a technology review board as one example.

Before the merger talk ramped up, the process to get an idea into production was based on a transparent process. Someone in the CIO’s shop would bring their idea and business case to a board of six people, which included the CIO, the deputy CIO and other executives. The board would review it and make a recommendation for how to move forward.

But as the CIO’s shop lost leadership, the review board basically fell apart and all the decisions fell into a black hole, partly because Weichert had to approve all plans, sources said.

“We felt it was a lack of trust. It started soon after Jeff Pon left as OPM director,” one source said. “It was a slow bleed, almost like you were scratching a mosquito bite that became infected. Most people didn’t see it coming.”

The demise of the review board and the turnover of leadership—both Garcia and deputy CIO Rob Leahy left within four months of each other—hurt the agency’s ability to make more progress on IT modernization. OPM brought in two experts in February from the U.S. Digital Service to fill the vacant CIO and deputy CIO roles.

Without a doubt, OPM’s IT modernization efforts weren’t perfect. The agency’s inspector general reported in February 2018 the agency continued to fall short with some basic planning and strategy requirements.

“When we talk about IT problems at OPM, these are hiccups every agency faces and they are making a mountain out of a mole hill,” a source said. “The things Margaret has been describing are not holy cow problems, but she is just trying to justify the merger.”

Work stalls, morale tanks as talent heads for the door

What the data doesn’t show is the caliber of talent — people with years of institutional knowledge who have earned the credibility and respect of their peers in the government human resources community — who have left the agency over the past year or so.

Federal News Network has learned that three-to-four-dozen employees who held what the agency deems as positions of importance — personnel at the GS-14, 15 or SES level not within NBIB or HR Solutions — have left OPM over the past 11 months.

In 2019 alone, approximately 60 GS-14s, 15s and senior executives have quit. The agency has been able to hire back about one-third, Federal News Network has learned.

Meanwhile, savvy agencies are actively recruiting OPM’s best and brightest employees to join their own human capital organizations.

Andrea Bright, who ran OPM’s internal human resources shop, left in May for a job at Customs and Border Protection. She had spent nearly 23 years at OPM, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Julie Brill, a 30-year veteran of OPM, left the agency to join the Small Business Administration as its deputy chief human capital officer. She left OPM in June, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Alan Spielman, who led the agency’s healthcare and insurance organization, has retired, current and former OPM employees said.

Dean Hunter, the director of OPM’s facilities, security and emergency management organization, has left for another federal agency, former colleagues said. Hunter led calls with the Metropolitan Council of Governments to determine when agencies in the region should close due to poor weather.

“It was common to talk about looking for another job,” a former employee said. “Another coworker of mine left, and several others are looking to leave.”

Others close to the agency said turnover within OPM’s middle ranks have forced senior executives and other senior managers to pick up additional work and tasks that the employees below them typically completed.

“There have been a couple instances where we just don’t have the people to fill out this paperwork and carry it upstairs, or we don’t have the people to file this report,” one OPM employee said.

One source said an OPM manager had to do more than 80 performance reviews for their employees because so many GS-14s and 15s who usually handle these evaluations have left and haven’t been replaced.

The sheer uncertainty surrounding OPM and its budget often blocked or delayed the agency from backfilling empty positions, current and former employees said.

“The CIO’s office had an acting SES and acting GS-15s, and a bunch of 13-14s because they couldn’t hire anyone,” the source said. “They had open SES and open GS-15s that weren’t getting filled, [which left] the office with little leadership. The CIO’s office was told in October they weren’t hiring anyone without going through GSA first to determine what they already have.”

Weichert acknowledged OPM was more cautious to hire additional employees — because the agency didn’t know whether Congress would appropriate more funding at the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1.

“When it comes to bringing new people on and filling gaps and vacancies, we are just very thoughtful about how we’re doing that,” she said. “There is no hallowing-out strategy. There really is the reality of doing what we can with the funds we have and are likely to have going forward once background investigations are gone.”

Whether there was a formal strategy or not, current and former OPM employees say perception became reality as more and more leaders retired or found new jobs and the Trump administration ramped up its merger efforts.

One former OPM employee said some position announcements, which must get a sign-off from the director’s office before being posted on the USAJOBS portal, were approved, but others were not. The former employee described hiring at the agency as “one-off decisions.”

“[With] any of the positions we requested to back-fill, we weren’t able to do it,” the former employee said. “Doing more with less was an understatement with the workload we had.”

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Despite the merger talk, there was plenty of interest for people to work at OPM, the government source said. The agency received more than 250 applicants for three cybersecurity positions, the source said.

“This is happening in contracting too, where people are leaving and no one is backfilling those positions. Those who left have two-to-three times the workload they normally have, which also forces people to leave,” the source said. “This is a self-inflicted problem because the administration wants OPM to go away at all costs.”

Another source said in most offices the leadership vacuum has led to a lack of strategic planning.

“The sheer volume of changes in leadership makes it hard to know where you are going,” the source said. “When there is no leadership, no one is making decisions, especially when issues are sitting with GS-14s and below. There is a bottleneck to get decisions made.”

The constant churn of acting and permanent leadership at OPM hasn’t helped, employees said. Political team members from the prior director butted heads with the political appointees on Weichert’s team, putting pressure on career employees.

Political appointees often asked to review and clear career employees’ work, a seemingly impossible task for Weichert and her team, who juggled her acting OPM role and the duties from her permanent OMB job.

“It created a logjam,” one employee said. “I think people either just didn’t submit things or they tried and things got stuck.”

All of this — the lack of staff, direction and steady leadership — has put a dent in employee morale.

“It was really the overall atmosphere and vibe, it drastically changed,” a former OPM employee said.  “You could probably notice just seeing people’s faces in the halls, whether it was people I worked with or not, it was definitely different.”

Regardless of OPM’s future, current and former employees say they fear the loss of talent and low morale could take years to reverse.

The merger itself has prevented OPM from leading the kinds of strategic, forward-looking conversations about the federal workforce of the future, which Weichert and the Trump administration have advocated for in the President’s Management Agenda.

Editor’s note: This is part 1 of a two-part special investigation by Federal News Network about the lasting impact the potential merger of the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration is having on OPM’s employees and missions. In part 2, we explore why some employees felt left in the dark over the merger plans.

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