Ahuja vows to bring stable leadership to OPM after years of turnover at the top

Kiran Ahuja, the president's nominee to lead the Office of Personnel Management, said the agency isn't making progress on its biggest challenges, in large part,...

Kiran Ahuja, the president’s nominee to lead the Office of Personnel Management, told senators they could count on her to provide stable leadership at the agency, following years of instability and turnover at the top.

“I commit to being there as long as I have the support of all of you and President [Joe] Biden, because I think it is going to be needed,” she said Thursday at her nomination hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

A few senators mentioned leadership turnover at OPM, and it’s something Ahuja is familiar with personally. She served as chief of staff at the agency while Beth Cobert led OPM on an acting basis for a year-and-a-half during the Obama administration.

OPM had two permanent directors during the last administration, but their tenures were brief. Two others led the agency on an acting basis and served longer than the people they replaced.

A lack of permanent leadership has hindered OPM’s ability to make progress on major initiatives like IT modernization and improving the federal retirement process, Ahuja said, and those two priorities go hand-in-hand.

She said she would create a specific IT modernization plan for retirement services and would pilot better call-center technology and an option to fast-track applications.

“Unfortunately, every director of OPM has said almost exactly that for the last several years,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “How do we actually move from talking about that to doing it?”

“It helps that we have the Technology Modernization Fund, to be quite honest,” Ahuja said. “That hasn’t existed in the past, and resources are needed. In the case of OPM, the challenges have been not having stable leadership at the top.”

The lack of stable, permanent OPM leadership was one of many challenges the National Academy of Public Administration highlighted in a recent report to Congress and the Biden administration, which offered 23 recommendations aimed at improving and refocusing the agency as the federal government’s human capital leader.

Senators on Thursday, however, spent most of their time questioning the president’s nominees to serve on the U.S. Postal Board of Governors.

They didn’t bring up the NAPA report, though committee Chairman Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member Rob Portman (R-Ohio) acknowledged OPM had experienced its fair share of upheaval.

“Over the last few years OPM and our federal workforce have faced many challenges,” said Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “This is an incredibly important position, and I believe your extensive public service experience, including as chief of staff at OPM, have prepared you well to lead this agency at what is, undoubtedly, a pivotal time for employees at OPM and throughout the federal government. As we’ve discussed in the past, our nation’s civil service requires an experienced, independent leader who can rebuild confidence in OPM and provide a hopeful, innovative vison for the future of the federal workforce.”

Ahuja started her career as a trial attorney at the Justice Department through its honors program and returned to government as an executive director of the White House Initiative for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the Obama administration. She’s the current CEO of Philanthropy Northwest.

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

“I believe people are and should be at the center of all policy decisions,” she said. “If fortunate enough to be confirmed, I would carry forward this guiding principle while working in service to the American public. If confirmed, I pledge to protect our merit system principles, a bedrock of our civil service. It would be my mission to serve and support federal employees and to restore, rebuild and retool the federal workforce. OPM will need to innovate to meet the modern needs of agencies with respect to recruitment, hiring, retention, engagement and performance management.”

If confirmed, Ahuja said she would be “hyper-focused” on professional development and training opportunities for the federal workforce.

“One thing that we’ve learned from this pandemic is that our workforce is incredibly important and that we should really be focused on the kinds of opportunities that they’re being provided and the value and contributions of their service,” she said. “I would say there are real opportunities with some of what I call the feeder programs, which are expanding the Presidential Management Fellows program [and finding] where we can work out some of the kinks of the Pathways Program.”

When it comes to telework, Ahuja said there were opportunities to bring young talent into government who don’t currently live in urban areas. Agencies could potentially realize cost savings on locality pay and office space by offering more remote work arrangements as well, she added.

OPM has said it’s currently developing new guidance to help agencies update their telework and remote work programs for a post-pandemic era.

As it is throughout the Biden administration, diversity and inclusion is another priority.

“It is a huge asset,” Ahuja said. “It gives us a competitive advantage, and I think individuals want to see not only diversity all throughout the workforce but in the senior ranks, that they see individuals who come from their communities, that there’s a breadth of experience and people bringing those experiences from all walks of life.”

The Senate committee also questioned Ronald Stroman, Anton Hajjar and Amber McReynolds, Biden’s picks for the Postal Board of Governors. All three nominees pledged to prioritize customer service and said they faced no pressure to fire Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.

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