With the contract finalized, NAPA’s congressionally-mandated OPM study is underway

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A highly-anticipated study of the Office of Personnel Management can officially begin, now that the National Academy of Public Administration and the agency have finalized a year-long contract.

Both parties finalized the contract in mid-March. It runs through March 17, 2021, giving NAPA exactly one year to conduct a congressionally-mandated review of OPM and its statutory functions, as well as its other roles, responsibilities and challenges.

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The contract, which Federal News Network obtained, is worth $807,280.

The academy will provide Congress a report next March with its findings, as well as its recommendations for addressing OPM’s challenges. OPM has another six months to respond to NAPA’s report to Congress.

The contract stemmed from a provision in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which temporarily blocked the transfer, transition, merger or consolidation of OPM statutory functions to the General Services Administration or Office of Management and Budget — at least until NAPA can finish a formal study of the agency and its mission.

It’s ultimately up to Congress whether it uses NAPA’s recommendations and OPM’s responses to draft potential legislation.

“With our report, Congress could begin to think about any kind of legislation or actions that they want to take, and they would finalize those based on any responses that OPM would provide,” Terry Gerton, NAPA president and CEO, said in an interview with Federal News Network. “Our expectation would be that if any of this generates a move for legislative changes that would be in place for the [20]22 cycle.”

The NDAA language initially gave both the academy and the agency 30 days to finalize a contract, but discussions over the cost of the OPM study delayed the final award, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.

Though OPM did receive more appropriated dollars in 2020 than it has in previous years, the agency is still grappling with the financial shortfall created by the transfer of the National Background Investigations Bureau to the Defense Department.

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“Every study is different, and the negotiation process varies from study to study and client to client,” Gerton said of the contract negotiations. “We’re now at an agreed level support that is going to allow us to do the work that Congress has set forth.”

The academy, which has a long history of conducting congressionally-directed reviews of federal agencies, will follow the same procedures it has in the past to form and staff a new OPM study panel, Gerton said.

The academy issued a call to its fellows shortly after the OPM contract was signed. Fellows interested in participating had until March 26 to send their names, credentials and experience potentially relevant to the panel.

A “study team” made up of full-time NAPA staff, including a project director, senior adviser and other analysts, will take on much of the daily work.

“They’re already beginning background research, developing the work plan and thinking about how we’re going to proceed through the course of the one-year study,” Gerton said.

NAPA staff will review submissions from the fellows and recommend panelists to the academy’s chairman, who will approve participants for the panel.

The panelists are there to provide guidance and support to the academy’s full-time study team, Gerton said.

“Obviously we’re going to want folks who understand in some detail the internal operations of the Office of Personnel Management,” she said. “We’re going to need folks who understand the federal budget process and the reimbursable work process, because those are very clearly called out in the legislative language. We have a responsibility to look at the application and implementation of information technology within OPM, so we’re going to be looking for fellows who have experience there. Obviously folks who’ve had experience in large-scale government transformation projects and folks who understand the relationships between cabinet agencies and Congress, all of those are clearly set forth in the tasks that Congress gave us in the language.”

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The panel will meet three-to-four times throughout the course of the year. For now, those meetings will be virtual, Gerton said, but the panelists will be engaged with the NAPA study team and subject matter experts from OPM throughout the year.

Regardless of NAPA’s findings, the OPM study has and likely will continue to generate a great amount of interest in the federal community.

Federal employee groups who pushed for the NDAA provision have said they view the NAPA study as a way to strategically pause the Trump administration’s controversial plan to merge OPM with GSA.

And even as the administration has acknowledged NAPA’s role, there are signs the White House is still pursuing the merger.

The administration included a $70 million request to cover the costs of the OPM-GSA merger in its 2021 budget request. Meetings to discuss the merger have also continued.

But for NAPA, the OPM study gives the academy an opportunity to gather a wide variety of stakeholders, including other federal agencies that use OPM services, employee unions and other groups.

“We think that is one of the strengths of the academy, our ability to convene a variety of groups in non-attribution ways [and] in ways that really help us get after their concerns and their issues,” she said. “That is absolutely part of the work plan that we are developing, lots and lots of listening sessions and focus groups. [We’re] really trying to make sure that we touch all of the stakeholders and advocacy groups, because we realize that the world of folks who care about what happens to OPM is really wide.”