Agencies now need OPM permission for more kinds of political conversions

The Office of Personnel Management is expanding the variety of political conversations that must receive its permission before a new appointment to a civil serv...

A wider variety of political conversions must first get permission from the Office of Personnel Management, before agencies confirm the move of a political appointee to a new position in the civil service.

The change specifically applies to positions that involve a non-competitive or direct-hire appointment.

Currently, agencies need OPM permission before naming a political appointee to a permanent position in the competitive service or the career Senior Executive Service. Previous policy excluded some appointees who were chosen to fill positions in the excepted service.

Now, political appointees seeking another job in the competitive and excepted services must get permission.

OPM is changing its current policy to comply with the Presidential Transitions Improvement Act, which Congress passed back in 2016.

“OPM’s objective is to safeguard fair and open competition and protect against political influence in the hiring for career federal jobs,” the agency wrote in a memo dated Feb. 23. “With this in mind, the two most common reasons for OPM not to approve a proposed selection are (1) when the career job appears to have been created or tailored solely for the benefit of the current or former political appointee or, (2) when competition for the career job has been limited inappropriately.”

The agency will finish pre-hiring reviews and notify departments of its decision within 15 business days of receiving all needed information, OPM wrote in a series of frequently asked questions on the new policy.

Once OPM determines the selection is “free from political influence,” agencies must send additional information back to confirm the political conversation, start date and basic rate of pay.

The Transitions Improvement Act expanded the definition of a “political appointee” and included new reporting requirements for the Office of Personnel Management. Now, OPM must report on any requests that agencies make to appoint current or former political appointees to other positions in the civil service. In addition, agencies must tell OPM if the appointee they selected wasn’t chosen for the job, as well as other details about an appointee’s effective hiring date and rate of pay.

Between Jan. 1, 2016 and March 17, 2016, OPM approved 78 of 99 requests to convert political appointees to career positions. Agencies converted seven people without OPM permission during this time period, according to a 2017 study from the Government Accountability Office.

Eight agencies accounted for the majority of OPM’s permitted political conversions, according to GAO. The Homeland Security and Justice Departments made up the majority of the conversions.

Though agencies seemed to generally comply with laws and statutes and approved conversions seemed to meet merit system principles, OPM could do more to keep documentation of these conversions up to date, GAO said.

“Supporting documentation in its case files for more than 70 percent of approved conversions lacked sufficient information for us to initially determine the accuracy of its conclusion that the proposed conversions appeared free of political influence and conformed to merit system principles,” GAO wrote. “We were only able to make our determination after obtaining and reviewing documents from involved agencies.”

OPM has long held policy on political conversations, otherwise known as the practice of “burrowing in,” since the Carter administration. But lawmakers have taken a particular interest in the topic during recent years.

The House earlier this week passed a new bill that sets further limitations. The Political Appointee Burrowing Prevention Act would prevent agencies from naming a political appointee to a career position for two years after he or she leaves from that political position.

Former political appointees could, however, receive a career position that had nothing to do with their prior job as an appointee, the legislation said.

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