Q&A with OPM: Retirement, benefits and employee morale

Edited by Shefali Kapadia and Julia Ziegler
Federal News Radio

Phased retirement, diversity initiatives and employee morale are among the top priorities for the Office of Personnel Management.

In an exclusive online chat in May, OPM Director Katherine Archuleta answered an array of questions from Federal News Radio readers on these topics and other personnel issues. Time did not allow for Director Archuleta to answer all of the questions received from readers during the live chat.

In the time since, Federal News Radio has worked with OPM to provide answers to readers’ remaining questions, which you can now find below.


Do you have any plans to formally/informally document the intellectual capital captured from retiring employees and/or any tools in place to help facilitate the dissemination of that info to the new incoming workforce?

During phased retirement, the employee will spend 20 percent of his/her time in mentoring activities to facilitate the transfer of their knowledge and skills to other employees within the agency. Each agency will have the flexibility to implement the mentoring component in a way that is best for the agency and employees. For more information on phased retirement final regulations, please visit https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2014/08/08/2014- 18681/phased-retirement.

I find it very hard to get anyone on the phone to discuss my retirement claim when I have questions. How can this be fixed?

OPM added call center support and capacity to handle more calls. There are certain times of the day when it’s easier to get through — the best times to call are early morning or late afternoon. Additionally we strongly encourage annuitants to use Services Online to complete many routine inquiries/changes like address and bank changes.


When it comes to diversity in government, where are your efforts focused the most?

One of Director Archuleta’s highest priorities and biggest challenges is to increase the diversity and inclusion and engagement of the federal workforce, particularly when it comes to those underrepresented in the federal government. We are looking at ways to improve the hiring process and expanding our outreach. We are working diligently to create inclusive work environments where each employee is developed to his or her full potential. We are creating a culture of mentoring government-wide for individuals from entry level through SES.

What is being done with supervisors and managers who continuously are being charged with discriminating in the workplace?

OPM does not tolerate any employment discrimination on any basis. One of the first things that Director Archuleta did as OPM director was insert a performance element on diversity, inclusion and engagement into the appraisals of senior executives, managers and supervisors. OPM is dedicated to creating a work environment that is welcoming and inclusive for all our employees where individuals are treated fairly, developed and empowered to do their best work.

The President issued an executive order which requires each agency to establish and maintain an equal employment opportunity program for all civilian employees and applicants for employment within its jurisdiction. Anyone who feels discriminated against because of their protected class, should contact their agency’s EEO office.


Your predecessor John Berry began to implement many hiring reforms. What’s the status of these efforts and what else would you like to see done to improve the process?

OPM made a significant reduction in the time it takes to hire people into the federal government. In 2009, 24 cabinet-level departments and independent agencies estimated that the average time to hire was approximately 122 days. Using the hiring process model that OPM developed in partnership with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, agencies reduced time-to-hire to an average of 90 days (posting of a vacancy announcement to bringing employees on-board).

OPM will continue to work with agencies, our labor partners and other stakeholders to utilize existing recruitment and retention tools and explore whether additional flexibilities are warranted to address workforce needs. We will continue to collaborate with federal stakeholders to improve hiring outcomes in the short term by identifying “knots” within an agency process or an OPM policy that may be streamlined by “untying that knot.” OPM will continue to help agencies enhance the management and performance of their workforce by sharing best practices and leadership development resources. These efforts will help ensure that we build and develop a workforce that is engaged, inclusive, and high-performing in order to meet the challenges of both today and tomorrow.

What is your vision for making USAJobs.gov more user-friendly and updated?

USAJOBS is constantly shaping the website to be more user-friendly, and we deliver releases with new and updated functionality every 9-12 weeks. We have a formal usability program that affords us the opportunity to gain insight into end users’ experiences with the website. In addition, USAJOBS collects feedback through its online surveys and Contact Us page to identify areas for improvement. We welcome the continued exchange of ideas and complaints to make the job search process more effective. We will continue to update the website, so keep the comments coming in.

We hear many stories about federal employees today who make the government their career. But, younger people aren’t tending to stay in jobs for 20 or 30 years. Looking down the road, how could this change affect the federal government and what can agencies do to mitigate it?

Federal agencies need to be prepared to replace departing talent, especially for mission-critical occupations. A part of an agency’s strategic workforce plan includes succession planning as well as a recruitment plan that, together, address current and anticipated talent gaps and build the talent pipeline at all levels. An agency’s overall recruitment plan must include seeking talent from all segments of society, including students and recent graduates. Although we are focused on recruiting professionals at all stages in their careers, students and recent graduates bring with them many talents, among them: enthusiasm and energy; a willingness to learn; fresh perspectives, new ideas, and creative solutions, and they tend to be informed on the latest technology and advancements in their fields of interest.

How is OPM addressing problems within the Senior Executive Service, including the hiring process and the reliance on performance awards?

OPM is committed to building a world-class federal leadership team, starting with the Senior Executive Service. For SES recruitment and hiring, we are working with agencies to streamline the time and the administrative burden of processes to ensure the deepest possible pools of SES candidates will be available and can be quickly appointed. Once these new SES members are appointed, we are working with agencies to implement a strong onboarding program so our new leaders may quickly and effectively transition into their new roles. We are working with agencies to strengthen their leadership development curricula to prepare these new and aspiring leaders to grow and succeed. We are also continuing to help agencies implement the Governmentwide Model SES Performance Appraisal System, developed by OPM in partnership with agencies, to help support effective performance management. We are also working with agencies by reviewing their SES appraisal systems to ensure agencies are operating their systems in a rigorous manner, making meaningful distinctions in performance, and using performance awards and other flexibilities in an appropriate, accountable way to encourage excellence in performance.

With respect to today’s budget shortfalls, especially as it pertains to training funds, what are your thoughts with respect to an agency establishing its own core group of Personal Development Instructors/Facilitators? Oddly, the few training dollars we have are generally paid to outside vendors for training we can do in-house. I would like your thoughts on establishing an ‘Agency University’, a world-class entity staffed with highly-trained, highly- motivated and highly-committed individuals. Individuals that care about the development of our ‘entire’ workforce. The potential cost savings here are boundless.

HR University (HRU) is one way that we are already doing this. The inter-agency training and development site has saved the federal government over $100 million. HRU was launched in 2011 by the Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCO) Council and has become the federal government’s one-stop shop for federal HR training. Through HRU, we are collaborating across government to share existing resources and address competency and skill gaps within the HR community. OPM is working very closely with the CHCO Council and hopes to replicate the HRU model to close skills gaps in other mission critical occupations across government.


My agency has been near the bottom of the Employee Viewpoint Survey list ever since the survey’s inception. How are the agencies being held accountable for receiving poor ratings from the surveys? In my agency, the low ratings are not much the result of sequestration and Congress, etc., but are more the result of the questionable management culture.

OPM is working with agencies to improve employee engagement by providing them with tools and other resources. For example, OPM’s new and powerful online tool called UnlockTalent.gov helps federal agencies boost employee engagement. With this interactive and customized dashboard, federal managers will be better able to analyze and understand the data from the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) and other sources, allowing them to creatively use the information in their engagement strategies.

Additionally, the Chief Human Capital Officers Council and the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations formed a joint workgroup on the topic of employee engagement that is working towards a process to identify best management practices currently in use in the government and in other sectors, barriers and enablers of engagement (such as a lack of trust), and measures and incentives to drive improvement in engagement.

The Partnership for Public Service has put out multiple reports recently about the dismal morale of the federal workforce and the risks it imposes on the government’s capacity to serve its citizens. What is OPM planning on doing to not only address the needs of the current workforce, but address the needs of the incoming federal employees? It’s been reported that there’s only 6 percent of feds under the age of 30 compared to 23 percent in private industry.

Employee engagement is a priority for Director Archuleta. She is working closely with the Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCO) Council and the National Council on Federal Labor Management Relations to indentify the best management practices currently in use in the government and in other sectors, barriers and enablers of engagement, and measures and incentives to drive improvement in engagement. We are also taking the results from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) very seriously and working tirelessly to help agencies to use the rich data and develop action plans for addressing areas of improvement.


With all of the government funding problems and the complaints that federal government workers are overpaid when compared to the private sector, is OPM looking to include education levels to be reflected in salary? I’m working on my dissertation for my PhD and there is no benefit for me to stay in the federal government when the private industry will pay me higher wages to reflect my education and work experience. Do you think it is time for the GS system to have an overhaul?

We recognize that we need to take a look at how we compete for and reward top talent. We value the education and knowledge our employees bring to the federal government. As pointed out in the President’s FY 2015 budget proposal, in the past 60 years the private sector has innovated towards more flexible personnel management systems. Although recent efforts have shown some progress, additional reforms are needed to bring about an alternative, cost-effective system.


What are your plans for the new OPM Innovation Lab? How will it help to make the government work better?

Through its focus on people-centered design and capacity building efforts, the Lab is advancing OPM’s strategic plan and the President’s Second Term Management Agenda in the areas of employee engagement, customer service, and transparent budgeting and costing.

Currently, the Lab is excited to work on GovConnect. Co-led by OPM and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), GovConnect is a government-wide effort to address critical issues through the adoption of new workforce approaches and technologies that foster creativity, knowledge-sharing and innovation as a part of their culture. It is a way to create a culture of excellence by implementing a new model of a mobile, aging, innovative and skilled federal workforce that is based on team collaboration and responsiveness to mission demands, rather than being unnecessarily limited by organizational silos. The Lab will play a large role in the new project by hosting and coordinating the design and facilitation process.

Look into your crystal ball. What does the OPM of 2020 look like? What does the federal workforce look like?

Director Archuleta is invested in focusing on a set of priorities that will influence the future of the federal workforce: to honor and build a more diverse and engaged workforce; to improve the employee experience from the process of applying to the process of retiring; to streamline and modernize our federal IT systems and strengthen our background investigation process; to continue to be a leader in managing federal employee health care and continue the implementation of the Multi-State Plan provision of the Affordable Care Act. We have already made progress in many of these areas and hope these priorities will shape the future of OPM and the federal government as a whole.

Do federal agencies have flexibility in adapting the OPM policy on all teleworkers working when government offices are closed to fit their own agencies or must they follow OPM regulations to the letter?

OPM encourages federal agencies to customize their policies to their specific workforce profiles and workplace requirements. Agency policies, programs and practices must comply with applicable laws, regulations and guidance.

View an archive of Director Archuleta’s online chat. Those interested in OPM’s final rule on phased retirement, can check out Federal News Radio’s Phased Retirement Q&A.