Fedweek

Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., chairs the Government Operations Subcommittee. Members questioned the Administration's reorganization plans for OPM and GSA, pointing out that OPM's IT problems are common across the government, and that OPM's role could become more politicized.

The administration’s proposal to reorganize OPM received a skeptical reception in a House hearing where members raised now-familiar reservations about putting its policy functions under OMB and sending its retirement, insurance and HR services branches to GSA.

Acting director Margaret Weichert argued that OPM’s IT is so outdated and requires so many work-arounds that the agency has little time to devote to its role in overseeing personnel policies and practices government-wide.

Understaffing is also a problem, she said, because the agency has difficulty attracting IT professionals who are even willing to work with such outmoded hardware and software. The results, she said, can be seen in the low ratings given in the annual federal employee survey on questions related to merit-related issues such as whether promotions and other rewards are linked to the quality of one’s work.

She said the GSA has expertise in procuring and operating the kind of systems needed in the retirement and insurance programs and also has experience in providing services to other agencies through its property management and other services. She also stressed that an OPM-like structure would continue as a new division of the GSA and said that the remainder of OPM, which would become an Office of Federal Workforce Policy, would generally farm out day to day actions to that division, which would consist primarily of career federal employees as OPM does today.

However, members of the House subcommittee on government operations of both parties questioned whether a reorganization is needed to solve OPM’s IT problems, saying that such problems are common across government.

Several raised concerns that the administration had not looked into all of the options before committing to the plan—meanwhile noting that another part of it is already too late to stop, the transfer to DoD of OPM’s background check function.

Members gave no indication of an intent to approve the remaining parts that require changes in law before the administration’s goal of October 1, which even Weichert admitted is not on track.

Politicization Concerns

Democratic members of the committee in particular were wary of the potential for politicizing the civil service once policy decisions are in the hands of a political appointee in OMB who would not be subject to Senate confirmation. A number of federal employee organizations put the concern in even stronger terms, in testimony by two before the subcommittee and in written statements submitted by several others.

Witnesses from GAO and the OPM inspector general’s office meanwhile said that they could not assess the merits of the plan because the administration had not produced documents such as financial, risk and cost-benefit analyses, a plan for the workforce transition and other management challenges, or legal opinions on the laws and rules involved. The committee previously had asked OPM for such documents and the agency delivered some just hours before the hearing, but several members said that even those were incomplete.

Another voice of skepticism came from Linda Springer, a senior OMB official and later OPM director during the Bush administration who later worked for the Trump administration during the transition. She said that the administration doesn’t appear to have done enough planning, that GSA’s expertise is very different from OPM’s, that the proposal would leave the new OMB office with the power to write policies and not just delegate that task to the new GSA division, and that she shared the concern about the potential for politicizing workplace policies.