Biden names Obama-era veteran to lead OPM

President Joe Biden has tapped Kiran Ahuja to be his new permanent director of the Office of Personnel Management.

If confirmed, Ahuja would be the first South Asian and first Asian American woman to lead OPM.

Ahuja served for a little more than a year as OPM chief of staff during the Obama administration under acting Director Beth Cobert. She previously spent six years as executive director of President Barack Obama’s White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

During Biden’s transition, Ahuja led the OPM review team.

“I have great confidence that Kiran will be an outstanding director of OPM,” Cobert, now the chief operating officer for the Markle Foundation, said in a statement. “She knows firsthand the critical role OPM must play in rebuilding a strong federal workforce that is ready to meet the urgent challenges of the nation. Her commitment to empowering the OPM workforce, expertise in federal human capital issues and track record of bringing people together to solve difficult problems makes her an excellent choice for this role who will hit the ground running on day one.”

Ahuja has over 20 years of public service and philanthropy experience. She’s currently the CEO of Philanthropy Northwest, and she spent several years as a career civil rights attorney at the Justice Department.

If she’s confirmed, Ahuja would take on a long list of priorities and challenges — all at a time when good government groups and some employee organizations have called for sweeping changes to the current federal hiring, personnel and civil service systems.

OPM is knee-deep in developing policy and safety guidance for the federal workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s juggling several IT modernization initiatives and an outdated retirement services process.

“Having worked with Kiran before, I can personally attest to her deep appreciation for the critical role this agency plays in powering a strong federal government and her commitment to empowering the OPM workforce with the tools and support it needs to deliver on its important work,” Kathleen McGettigan, the agency’s chief management officer and current acting director, said in a statement. “Once confirmed by the Senate, I look forward to welcoming Kiran back to OPM.”

To some degree, Ahuja may take on an effort to rebuild an agency that’s seen change and low morale in recent years. The prospect of the prior administration’s proposed merger of OPM with the General Services Administration hung over much of the last four years, creating uncertainty for the agency and its employees and forcing some long-time executives to retire or leave.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Government Operations Subcommittee, said OPM is in need of a rebuild and believed Ahuja was up to task of bringing stability to the agency.

“I look forward to her swift Senate confirmation, and then getting to the hard work of transforming OPM into the human resources and leadership training organization our nation needs it to be,” he said Tuesday afternoon.

The National Academy of Public Administration is expected to release a report next month, which will detail its recommendations for OPM and its future.

Experts in the federal community have said a strong, organized and independent OPM is a key to a successful federal workforce — and the myriad of economic, health, climate and social equity challenges that the Biden administration wants the government to respond to.

OPM, meanwhile, has witnessed a dizzying number of key personnel changes within the last two administrations. The agency had two permanent and three acting leaders during the Trump era. An acting director led OPM for the two years following the 2015 cybersecurity breaches.

“OPM suffered these last four years with a revolving door of leadership and interim appointees who never fully committed to the agency and its mission,” Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said Tuesday in a statement. “In that vacuum, the agency was constantly disrupted by outside efforts to break it up and dismantle it, to the detriment of the federal employees who rely on OPM for independence and management of important federal employee programs. We believe this appointment will result in steady, professional leadership at OPM that is committed to protecting its unique role in administering federal retirement programs and other human resource management priorities.”

The two largest employee unions on Tuesday praised Biden’s OPM announcement. The American Federation of Government Employees said Ahuja brings a “wealth of experience” to OPM. The union is encouraged she would renew efforts to improve diversity and inclusion efforts in government.

Both AFGE and NTEU are looking to OPM to help restore more cordial and productive labor relations, and they’re calling on the agency to reverse the outcomes of the prior administration’s 2018 executive orders on collective bargaining.

At its annual legislative conference this week, AFGE said it hoped the new administration would strengthen OPM’s budget, IT and procurement functions.

“We need a strong OPM director,” Jacque Simon, AFGE’s policy director, said Sunday during a call with reporters. “Somebody said that sometimes that position is a consolation prize to somebody who wanted something else and OPM is what they got instead. We’ve had some great OPM directors who are very, very knowledgeable about the civil service and all the statutory functions of OPM. That’s what we’d like to see — somebody who will be a strong defender of the civil service and a strong defender of the Office of Personnel Management.”

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