OPM has issued a memo similar to what it traditionally has sent just before a Presidential election reminding agencies of restrictions against converting political appointees to career positions, either in the competitive service or the excepted service—so-called “burrowing in.”
“During this Presidential election year, we would like to remind agency heads of the need to ensure all personnel actions remain free of political influence or other improprieties and meet all relevant civil service laws, rules, and regulations,” OPM said. “All official personnel records should clearly document continued adherence to federal merit principles and remain free of any prohibited personnel practices.”
“In particular, any appointments of political appointees, Schedule C employees, and Noncareer Senior Executive Service members to competitive or non-political excepted service positions or to career SES positions require careful attention to ensure they comply with merit principles regarding fair and open competition,” it said.
OPM stressed that its policy requires the pre-appointment review of all competitive and non-political excepted service appointment actions that involve the appointment or conversion of a current or former political appointee, Schedule C employee, or noncareer SES member.
“OPM will continue to conduct merit staffing reviews of proposed career SES selections of political, Schedule C, and noncareer SES appointees before those selections are presented to a Qualifications Review Board for certification of executive qualifications. As it has in the past, OPM will suspend the processing of QRB cases during agency head transitions,” it said.
The memo further reminds agencies that they may not pay incentive awards from June 1 through year’s end to noncareer SES members or any individual who serves in a position of a confidential or policy determining character as a Schedule C employee. In addition, all political appointees continue to be covered by a freeze on discretionary awards bonuses and similar payments that began in 2010, it said.
While burrowing in is an ongoing issue in the federal workforce, especially around presidential elections, GAO reviews have found only a small number of such conversions relative to the size of the federal workforce and have said that in all but a few the appointee was deemed qualified for the job.
For example, in a 2017 report it found only 69 such conversions over January 2010-March 2016 and said that in almost all cases they “complied with merit system principles, applicable civil service law, and regulations. Similarly, in a 2010 report it said that agencies appeared to have used appropriate authorities and followed proper procedures in making 92 of the 117 conversions from political to career positions reported at the GS-12 level or higher by 26 agencies over the four years ending in May 2009.