New civil service report meant to bring people together has driven them apart

The authors of a new federal human capital report recently made the case that after years of studies, congressional testimony and panel discussions, the time is now for an extensive, large-scale modernization effort of the federal civil service and the executive branch agency that’s supposed to manage it.

Some of their recommendations, which were detailed in a 120-page report spearheaded by the Senior Executives Association and the Center for Organizational Excellence, are familiar.

Others, especially those covering the organization and leadership structure of the Office of Personnel Management, offer perhaps a different take on past proposals.

“My goal is to bring people to the table that can collectively work together,” Steve Goodrich, CEO of the Center for Organizational Excellence and one of the report’s study chairs, told reporters Tuesday. “There are very few members of Congress who spend their time focused on workforce issues but complain about it when they’re not being addressed. It’s time for all of us to come together, in a facilitated way, to start that dialogue and move that forward.”

But circumstances around the report and recent feedback about its recommendations illustrate just how difficult “coming together” will be.

The document itself has sparked a debate between the authors and at least one federal employee group, who believes its brief participation in civil service discussions was mischaracterized and creates a false impression that it supports and endorses the report’s 16 recommendations for OPM and the civil service.

The report lists seven people as study committee members and contributors. It also lists about 20 other “contributors,” who include representatives from the IBM Center for the Business of Government, the National Academy of Public Administration, private sector organizations, former federal and state human capital leaders and two federal employee unions.

But Richard Loeb, the senior policy counsel who was listed as a “contributor” from the American Federation of Government Employees, said the word doesn’t describe his involvement with the report.

In a July 27 letter to SEA and the Center for Organizational Excellence, Loeb said he represented AFGE at a daylong session in January to discuss “ideas on improving HR management.”

Loeb heard from the session’s organizers once in February and again in May, who described an effort to conduct further research and solicit more feedback. But the report’s organizers didn’t solicit more input from AFGE, he said.

“You and your contractor patrons are certainly entitled to publish your views regarding the federal civil service,” Loeb said. “But this report has been falsely advertised as reflecting the views of a broad range of individuals and organizations who do not support its recommendations. Spending one day with 20 people talking about the future of the civil service and then using that day as a pretext for writing a report to justify the dismantlement of the basic structures of the civil service is dishonest.”

Loeb has asked that SEA and the Center for Organizational Excellence remove his name and AFGE’s name from the report.

Goodrich said he would honor Loeb’s request. A future version of the report will refer to its “contributors” as “participants,” he added.

“They were there, and they were engaged,” Goodrich said of AFGE and its involvement in the January brainstorming session. “They were listened to.”

In a press call with reporters Tuesday, both Goodrich and SEA said it was never their intention to achieve consensus with all of their contributors and participants.

But beyond its objections with how the union was characterized in the report, AFGE has numerous criticisms of the recommendations themselves.

“It is nothing but a dishonest attempt to promote the administration’s effort to abolish OPM and politicize the career civil service, and simultaneously destroy the pay and benefits programs that protect the civil service from the corruption of politics and discrimination,” Loeb wrote in the letter.

AFGE’s letter surprised Goodrich, who said he ultimately thought both he and the union shared the same goals.

“Our position is that we need to honor this workforce,” he said in a brief interview with Federal News Network. “OPM should be a standalone agency with a term appointed leader.”

The report from Goodrich and SEA makes several recommendations about OPM and its structure. It proposes reorganizing OPM’s policy offices and creating new ones. It suggests lengthening the term of the OPM director from four years to a five or eight-year term.

OPM should have a different name, mission statement and leadership structure, human capital authors said.

They contemplate moving OPM’s retirement services and healthcare and insurances functions to a different agency or to the private sector.

But clearly, AFGE and the authors of the federal human capital report see these recommendations in drastically different ways.

For Goodrich and SEA, creating a five or eight-year term for the OPM director would bring some much-needed stability to a position that has seen a constant “revolving door” of leadership in recent years.

The Trump administration alone has nominated four different people in less than four years to lead OPM on a permanent basis.

But AFGE sees it differently.

“The OPM director position is already a four-year term appointment requiring presidential nomination and Senate confirmation,” AFGE wrote. “What possible advantage is gained from increasing the term of the appointment, other than to embed someone who may not reflect an administration’s policies? Given the tenure of recent appointees to this position, increasing the term of office seems quite irrelevant.”

The union took offense with the proposals to restructure OPM and possibly move the agency’s retirement and healthcare services. OPM’s healthcare and insurance division “does a good job negotiating prices and coverage” for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, AFGE said.

Moving these entities out “would reduce OPM by over 1,700 positions, meaning the agency would be at least 61% smaller than it is today, which is already at a historic low,” the union said.

To be clear, SEA and the Center for Organizational Excellence don’t offer a firm proposal on where OPM health and retirement services should go. In an interview, Goodrich suggested employees with outsourced positions could transition to new, “higher value” jobs within the federal workforce.

SEA and the Center for Organizational Excellence also suggest a review of the responsibilities and authorities of the deputy director for management position at the Office of Management and Budget.

For AFGE, the proposal represents another attempt to make OPM a “mere vassal of OMB,” “vesting real authority in OMB, an arm of the White House,” the union said.

But SEA and the Center for Organizational Excellence argue those concerns demonstrate the need for a review of the OMB position.

“Since its creation, it’s been a kitchen sink for Congress, throwing responsibilities across a myriad of areas, including many areas of human capital policy,” Jason Briefel, SEA’s executive director, said of the DDM position. “No one knows what that means and how it’s impacting these interactions between OMB and OPM, and the concerns that it raises about the independence of OPM and decisions its making with regard to federal workforce policy.”

The report comes as the National Academy of Public Administration is currently conducting its own, congressionally-mandated review of OPM and its statutory functions, which SEA and the Center for Organizational Excellence plainly acknowledge in their own report.

Goodrich said NAPA has a copy of the human capital report, but the organization didn’t provide real input on the recommendations.

“We’ve tried to be real honest brokers in this,” he said. “We’re trying to reduce the amount of tension so we can talk about the real issues.”

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