What Did NAPA Recommend for OPM? And are they Correct?

Last week the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) issued its long-awaited report on the Trump Administration proposal to abolish the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and move most of the OPM mission to the General Services Administration (GSA). The bottom line from NAPA’s report is this:

The need for an independent, enterprise-wide human capital agency and steward of the merit system principles is clear, as is the critical need to rebuild staff capacity, encourage innovation, and adopt a more data- driven, accountable, and forward-looking human capital approach. In addition, human capital management must be elevated. The OPM Director — and human capital as a whole — needs a “seat at the table.” The Director should be the principal advisor to the President on human capital, as envisioned in the Civil Service Reform Act, and OPM should be that lead for federal civilian human capital, setting policy, establishing a framework for agencies to manage their workforces, facilitating innovation and the sharing of best practices and lessons learned, and both collecting and using data and data analytics.

There is a lot to unpack in those few sentences, so let’s go through it step by step and look at what it might mean if Congress and the Biden Administration accept and implement NAPA’s recommendations (as they should).

First up is “independent.” When OPM was created by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 it was intended to be an Independent agency. In practice, OPM is not independent at all. It has become, as NAPA’s panel observed, more and more subservient to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Some argue that OMB is more flexible and innovative, while others will argue that OMB is more political because it is part of the White House. I believe OMB has capitalized on OPM’s weaknesses to exert too much control over OPM and its programs, and has contributed to OPM’s weakness. Former Obama Administration OPM Director John Berry referred to OMB as “the big dog” and OPM as “the flea.” If OPM is to ever recover, that must change and OPM must be independent of OMB.

Next is “enterprise-wide human capital agency.” It may surprise readers to learn that OPM does not have policy oversight for large segments of the federal workforce. They are primarily focused on those agencies and employees covered by Title 5 of the United States Code. That means there is no government-wide approach to managing the workforce. No one has the reins. There is no strategy, no comprehensive view of the workforce, and no way to effectively deal with the government’s workforce needs. OPM’s scope must be expanded to cover the entire federal workforce. Doing so will require Congress to expand OPM’s authority. They should do so and President Biden should sign it.

NAPA cited “the critical need to rebuild staff capacity” at OPM. Amen. OPM has been on a gradual decline since the Clinton Administration gutted federal Human Resources offices and OPM as part of the National Performance Review. OPM’s decline accelerated when the Trump Administration proposed abolishing the agency and moving most of its work to GSA, except for a handful of policy people who would be moved to OMB. OPM is an essential agency and it must be restored. Reversing decades of decline is not going to be easy. OPM needs resources, including appropriated dollars to cover all of its policy and oversight work. They need more staff, better technology, and time to make the changes.

Transforming OPM is far more than throwing money at it and hiring more people. It also requires a change in mindset at the agency. NAPA said they should “encourage innovation.” Innovation is not something OPM is known for. In fact, the agency has a history of discouraging innovation by agencies. When OPM has flexibility they are hesitant to use it. Their lawyers tend to say no far more than they say yes. A robust embrace of innovation is the foundation of a rebuilt OPM. Without it, all the dollars the government can print will not make a difference.

NAPA recommended that OPM “adopt a more data- driven, accountable, and forward-looking human capital approach.” The federal government has massive amounts of data regarding its workforce. For the most part that data goes into a black hole and is never used. The analytics that could make it useful are nowhere to be found. Technology is used, but stovepiped too much. That stovepiping continues in the way OPM and agencies do their work. Lasting changes in federal human capital management require data, both to decide what needs to be done and whether programs are effective. Absent data, we are just taking shots in the dark.

An important aspect of NAPA’s findings is the idea that “The (OPM) Director should be the principal advisor to the President on human capital.” As NAPA observed, that simply is not the case. As OMB has asserted more control over OPM and workforce policies, the Director of OPM has become far less influential. I agree with NAPA’s panel that the OPM Director should be the principal human capital advisor to the President. I would take that a step farther and  designate the OPM Director as a member of the President’s Cabinet, as President Bill Clinton did with former OPM Director Janice Lachance. I believe that is the best way to ensure the OPM Director is able to carry out the role it was intended to serve.

NAPA’s panel did a thorough job in laying out the issues. It concluded that there was no information that supported the Trump Administration proposal. It also highlighted the sidelining of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council in recent years. I agree completely. The CHCO Council should serve as a sort of board of directors for OPM, yet OPM has often ignored the Council. The NAPA report highlights the lack of clout of the CHCO Council as compared to the CIO Council and others. That should be changed and the CHCO Council given more influence.

One area that I wish the NAPA panel has explored in more detail is OPM’s fee-for-service business, particularly development of HR software. I agreed with OPM’s decision during the Obama Administration to bring USAJobs in house, Part of the argument OPM used for bringing USAJobs in house was that having a job board that was accessible to multiple vendors would encourage innovation in hiring tools. Their development of an expanding suite of HR software may be stifling innovation in the field. For more on that, take a look at this post from 2019. 

Overall, I believe NAPA’s report was excellent. The next steps will require the Biden Administration to embrace the recommendations and the Congress to reform OPM’s enabling legislation and appropriate sufficient funds for OPM to rebuild. I believe that is essential if we are going to build the workforce capabilities the government needs.


Burrowing In is a Recurring Problem. Here’s How to Fix It

The Trump Administration may have done far more burrowing in than usual, but they did not create the problem. Political appointees sometimes decide they want a career civil service job and their bosses are happy to help. After all, they thought highly enough of the appointees to appoint them once already. In fact, the career civil service was initially only a small percentage of federal jobs. In the years following the passage of the Pendleton Act that created the career civil service, a series of one-term Presidents increased the number of career jobs to take care of their appointees. So burrowing in is as old as the career civil service itself.

The problem with burrowing in is that it diminishes trust in the merit system. Even when the political appointees are highly qualified, few observers trust that the appointment process was fair. There is something to be said for that perception. When I think of the burrowing cases I have reviewed over the years, the common thread is that the person had inside knowledge of the agency and a connection to people making hiring decisions. Without that knowledge and connection, the likelihood is that they would not have been hired for the career job. 

That does not mean someone did something illegal. Having inside knowledge and knowing the decision makers applies to career employees in agencies too. The difference is the appearance. Someone coming in as a political appointee in an agency where s/he has no experience and then suddenly getting a good permanent job just looks bad. Sometimes it is bad, when the job was created primarily to provide a home for an appointee. 

So how do we fix it? There are two ways that I think are workable. The first would be for the Biden Administration to add a restriction to their ethics pledge that prohibits appointees from applying for a permanent federal job while they occupy a political position in the Administration. I would go a step further, and ask that they agree not to apply for or accept a permanent federal job within one year of leaving the Administration. That cooling off period would make it unlikely that the appointee would show up a year later and be hired into a career job. Even if they did, it would have a far better appearance than leaving the political job on Friday and starting the career job on Monday.

A better solution is for Congress to amend the law to put the same kind of restriction in place. At a minimum, appointees at any grade level should not be allowed to apply for or accept a permanent federal job while they are occupying a political position. Adding the cooling off period for a year would most likely make the burrowing in problem go away. An Administration in its last year is unlikely to go out and try to put many of their former appointees in career jobs. As some people say, absence makes the heart go yonder. 

We have experience that shows that this type of restriction could work. When the Department of Defense had restrictions on retiring military being rehired as civil servants in the 180 days following retirement, there were far fewer retired military who promptly came back as civilians. When those restrictions were lifted, the floodgates opened and the numbers increased dramatically, particularly in higher graded jobs. 

The credibility of the career civil service is a fundamental building block in restoring trust in government. Citizens need to know that their government is not hiring people based on their politics.  Reducing the instances of burrowing in is an important step in that process. 

I know some people will argue that burrowing in is not a problem in their Administration. I have heard far too many people say that hiring people from their administration is OK, because their political appointees are good. Not surprisingly, the Democrats and Republicans both think their appointees are great, but those from the other party are not.

They final argument I hear is that it would be unfair to deny appointees an opportunity for a career civil service job. Waiting a year before applying for a career job is not a big loss. No one is forced to accept a political appointment. In fact, the line of people wanting one is significant. Political appointees develop connections that make them very employable in many places, so a one-year cooling off period is not going to make them homeless. 

If we want burrowing in to go away, the only way to really fix this problem is to make it go away for Administrations of any party. The Biden Administration could make it happen now for their own appointees, but that would not prevent a future President from reversing the policy. That’s why Congress should act.