Administration signals continued desire for OPM-GSA merger with 2021 budget request

Signs indicate the Trump administration is still pursuing the merger of the Office of Personnel Management with the General Services Administration, despite recent congressional language prohibiting the transfer of OPM statutory functions to other agencies.

The administration will, for example, issue a joint budget request for OPM and GSA for 2021, Federal News Network has learned.

The president’s 2021 request is scheduled for release on Monday.

The White House previously issued a joint budget request for the two agencies in the president’s 2020 proposal. The administration first rolled up OPM justification’s inside the GSA request last year, a  move that, in part, represented the administration’s intention to merge the two agencies and begin a more concerted appeal to Congress to give them the statutory authorities needed to execute the transfer.

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The Office of Management and Budget declined to comment ahead of the president’s budget release next week.

Generally speaking, presidents’ budget requests are designed to convey the priorities of the current administration, and it’s rare these proposals make their way completely intact into the annual appropriations bills passed by Congress at the end of the year.

The expected decision to issue another joint OPM-GSA budget request for 2021 appears, at least, to contradict the spirit of the language Congress passed into law back in December.

The most recent defense authorization bill specifically prohibited the assignment, transfer, transition, merging or consolidation of any “function, responsibility, authority, service, system or program” that statutorily belongs at OPM, to GSA, the Office of Management and Budget or the Executive Office of the President.

Federal employee groups who had advocated for the inclusion of the language said it was intended to strategically “pause” the proposed merger in order to give an independent entity — the National Academy of Public Administration in this case — the time to charter a better organizational and financial path for OPM.

Still, meetings to discuss the OPM-GSA merger have continued, three sources told Federal News Network.

The recent National Defense Authorization Act gave NAPA and OPM 30 days to sign a contract for the academy’s study, which is supposed to take a year to complete. The deadline passed in late January.

In the past, NAPA has issued a “call to fellows” to solicit interest from its members to join a new study panel — once the academy and the agency have signed a contract. The academy has typically chosen anywhere from three-to-seven fellows, chosen by the board chairman, to sit on past study panels, said Dan Blair, a former NAPA president.

These panelists will drive and direct the study of a particular agency, though a NAPA project manager and accompanying staff will handle most of the research and interviews, Blair said.

OPM employees transfer to GSA

Moving key functions of OPM to GSA or other agencies will require legislative authorities the administration currently doesn’t have. But the administration did find an existing authority to execute one small piece of the proposed merger.

Two OPM employees who supported the Chief Human Capital Officers Council moved to GSA back in December, an OPM spokesperson said.

The employees moved under an authority described in the 2019 appropriations omnibus, the OPM spokesperson said. The authority in question allowed agency heads to transfer funds to GSA for the support of “governmentwide and other multi-agency financial, information technology, procurement and other management innovations, initiatives and activities, including improving coordination and reducing duplication.”

These funding transfers occur with the approval of the OMB director, in consultation with the governmentwide organizations such as the Chief Financial Officers Council, the Chief Information Officers Council and the CHCO Council, among others.

OMB said last July it intended to move the support staffs for the CHCO Council and the Performance Accountability Council’s Program Management Office (PAC PMO) to GSA. GSA already supports many of these governmentwide executive councils and organizations.

Moving the administrative support for these two councils to GSA, Weichert said at the time, would be no different.

OPM’s inspector general, however, had raised concerns about the transfer of these councils in a November report.

OPM employees subject to the transfer were appointed to new positions non-competitively, but only once these positions had cleared GSA’s interagency career transition assistance plan.

“Not only does this process not guarantee current OPM staff reemployment at GSA, OPM has
not conducted an assessment of the costs associated with this workforce restructuring,” the IG said. “Until OPM undertakes the necessary planning to address these issues, the agency will encounter
numerous challenges implementing the proposed reorganization.”

OPM is still considering a move of support staff for the PAC PMO to GSA, but the transfer has no timeline, the spokesperson said.

As Federal News Network has previously reported, the sheer uncertainty of the GSA merger has driven top talent to leave OPM over the last year.

The departures do appear to have stabilized in recent months, according to recent data OPM provided to Federal News Network.

OPM’s own human resources shop gained three employees in September and October last year, bringing its total workforce to 37 as of December. OPM HR had lost nearly 35% of its workforce between September 2018 and August 2019.

The agency’s Office of the Inspector General also added three more employees last fall, as has the OPM Office of the Chief Information Officer.

Still, a few of the agency’s key policy shops have continued to shed talent.

OPM’s employee services organization, which develops, implements and oversees governmentwide pay, performance management, recruitment and hiring programs, lost another seven employees between August and December 2019.

OPM’s Office of Merit System Accountability and Compliance lost another three employees within the same span.

At least two top OPM executives have also left the agency in recent months. Joe Kennedy, the longtime leader at the helm of OPM’s fee-for-service HR Solutions shop, retired in December after 37 years at the agency.

Mark Reinhold, who previously led the development of governmentwide human resources policy for OPM’s employee services office, left the agency in December after nearly 13 years. He started a new job in January as the Securities and Exchange Commission’s deputy HR director.

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