Thanks for your service — and don’t let the door whack you on the way out

Donna Seymour never really had a chance. Whether she was the best CIO ever or a total imposter didn’t, in the end, matter. She left the Office of Personnel Management yesterday as a retiree, ahead of testifying Wednesday before the House Oversight crowd. Half the committee was out for blood, and she knew it.

This now-canceled hearing was destined to be a hot-and-cold affair. Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) cited frequent commendations Seymour received for...

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Donna Seymour never really had a chance. Whether she was the best CIO ever or a total imposter didn’t, in the end, matter. She left the Office of Personnel Management yesterday as a retiree, ahead of testifying Wednesday before the House Oversight crowd. Half the committee was out for blood, and she knew it.

This now-canceled hearing was destined to be a hot-and-cold affair. Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) cited frequent commendations Seymour received for her professionalism and competence. Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) hailed the departure as good news, citing problems caused either by, in his words, her negligence or incompetence.

If you’re lying in a comfortable hammock catching a warm sea breeze, the experience is going to be dominated by the swarm of angry wasps that shows up. Chaffetz and his cohorts had been after a scalp for the Great OPM Cybersecurity Breach. Now they have it. Actually it’s their second. Recall that after a mediocre performance before the committee, OPM Director Katherine Archuleta — a close Obama apparatchik— had to step down. No White House rescue. At that level, once you’re a distraction it’s bye-bye.

That’s the key word here. Distraction. In her farewell, Seymour told her staff she didn’t want  her presence to distract from the work of her team.

That’s what flacks said about Danny Harris, the Education Department’s CIO, who was forced out too. He was said to not want to become  a distraction “to the department’s ongoing cybersecurity work.” Work that, by all accounts, hadn’t caught up to where it should be. Harris was the subject of inspector general investigations over side businesses and relationships with contractors.

OPM’s acting chief, Beth Cobert, said Seymour inherited problems years in the making. Federal CIO Tony Scott praised her efforts at remediation after the breach. Unfortunately, whatever Seymour accomplished in 37 years of federal service was irrelevant once the OPM breach turned from a technology problem to a political one.

You can’t get around that fact that the breach occurred on Seymour’s watch. She subsequently rushed into a contract for remediation and drew an IG report. In organizational dynamics, a point occurs where facts and objectivity fail. It’s not exactly emotion that takes over, but rather a draining away of confidence in a person. Sometimes the people at the center themselves get sick of the uphill slog. Either way they lose effectiveness, and that’s what happened to Seymour.

There’s nothing wrong with good, strong oversight. Agencies need it, strong executives welcome it. But devolution into ad hominem attacks and Congress fixating on this or that person indicates many things have gone wrong.  In this case, OPM has to swallow a toxic brew of long-standing problems, a succession of leaders, deteriorating relations with Congress, and the worst cyber breach ever. Nothing personal, Donna, it just didn’t work out.

More commentary from Tom Temin