Issue Briefs

Following is the section of a recent Congressional Research Service identifying issues surrounding OPM that may draw the attention of Congress, including those “related to potential politicization of the civil service and reorganization and modernization of OPM.”


Selected Oversight Issues

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Some observers have expressed concerns about potential politicization of the civil service by employees “burrowing in”—that is, the process of political appointees being converted to civil service positions during a presidential transition. This practice is of interest because “[u]nlike political appointments, civil service positions do not terminate at the end of an administration. Conversion therefore allows political appointees to stay in government after the president who appointed them has left office.” Observers suggest that this practice may not align with merit system principles that were intended to prevent nepotism and political favoritism in the civil service.

OPM is statutorily tasked with overseeing the conversion of political appointees into civil service positions. In 2018, OPM issued a memorandum outlining changes to their oversight practices in response to P.L. 114-136, the Edward “Ted” Kaufman and Michael Leavitt Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2015, enacted on March 18, 2016. Agencies are required to “submit a request to OPM whenever they seek to hire a current political appointee or one who has served in a political position within the last five years.” In addition, “OPM conducts multi-level reviews of each application to make sure the conversion follows federal hiring guidelines.” A report published in 2017 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that OPM approved 78 of 99 requests to convert political appointees to career positions agencies proposed to complete from January 1, 2010, through March 17, 2016. OPM denied 21 requests for varying reasons, such as bypassing qualified veterans, and referred 9 denied cases to the Office of Special Counsel (OSC). Of the 78 approved requests, agencies followed through and converted 69 political appointees to career positions. During the period, agencies completed 7 conversions without obtaining OPM approval; OPM completed post-appointment reviews for 4 of these 7 conversions, denying all 4. For each of the 4 denied cases, the agencies undertook various remedies, such as re-advertising positions, in response to OPM’s concerns. OPM did not complete a review for the 3 other conversions because the appointees were no longer in the career positions to which they were converted.

Congress may consider several questions with regard to “burrowing in,” including the adequacy and transparency of OPM’s current oversight practices, and the role of federal agencies in evaluating political appointee conversions.
Another possible issue for congressional oversight relates to the potential reorganization of OPM. The Trump Administration proposed to merge OPM with a renamed Government Services Agency (GSA; currently, the General Services Administration). This plan would have transferred most of OPM’s functions and authorities to GSA. It also suggested establishing an Office of Federal Workforce Policy in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to assume OPM’s policy responsibilities. Former OMB Director Russell Vought wrote a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the merger plan that stated: The primary purpose of the legislative proposal is to authorize the transfer of the vast majority of the current functions and resources of OPM to GSA, including Human Resources Solutions, Information Technology, Retirement, Health and Insurance Services. GSA will create a new Personnel Service to house the human resources and employee lifecycle management shared service offerings. Agencies will benefit from GSA helping them to obtain more strategic and comprehensive support for their needs.

Ultimately, the Trump Administration decided to abandon the plan, reportedly citing a lack of congressional action on the legislative proposal as the reason. Such a proposal may, however, cause some to raise questions regarding OPM’s role in federal human resources management, including whether OPM’s organizational structure should be altered, whether OPM should continue to be the primary agency tasked with significant responsibilities related to human capital management, and OMB’s role, if any, in federal personnel policy.
Still another issue for congressional oversight relates to modernization of OPM and federal hiring practices. Some observers suggest that OPM should modernize its hiring practices to stay competitive with private sector employers. Executive Order (E.O.) 13932, “Modernizing and Reforming the Assessment and Hiring of Federal Job Candidates,” issued by President Donald Trump on June 26, 2020, sought to alter the federal hiring process by removing potentially unnecessary education qualifications to ensure that the federal hiring process is merit-based. The changes mandated by the E.O. were reportedly intended to “most especially help with positions in the emerging technologies field, where some agencies have struggled to fill positions.” A recent U.S. Merit Systems Protections Board study found that agencies are relying more often on direct hire authorities to compete for talent. According to the report “agencies used direct hire authorities to make 28,000 appointments in fiscal 2018.”65 In reviewing this issue, Congress may consider whether OPM should encourage agencies to continue using direct hire authorities, how OPM has implemented E.O.13932, the executive order’s effect on the federal workforce, and whether a reduced reliance on education requirements in federal hiring would allow the federal government to better compete with the private sector for talent.

NAPA Recommendations for OPM

On March 17, 2021, NAPA released a congressionally mandated report on OPM, which included 23 recommendations for the agency. The first recommendation in the report stated that OPM’s statutory authority, codified at 5 U.S.C. §1101, should be amended “to clarify and redefine the role and mission of OPM as the federal government’s enterprise wide, independent human capital agency and steward of the merit system for all civilian personnel systems and employees, responsible for providing government-wide leadership in strategic human capital management.”67 Another recommendation stated that OPM should “(1) redefine the OPM mission statement and restructure the organization to effectively and efficiently execute the reframed mission priorities and (2) restore the agency’s reputation for human capital leadership, expertise, and service by redirecting the internal culture and rebuilding internal staff capacity.”

NAPA included a number of objectives associated with each recommendation. Each recommendation, if implemented, is designed to yield specific intended outcomes. The report explains:
Successful implementation should yield the following results: Human capital is recognized and supported as a strategic priority across government by the Administration, the Congress, and federal agencies. OPM’s role is reaffirmed and strengthened as the leader for strategic human capital management government-wide. OPM’s approach to human capital management evolves from predominantly compliance-oriented to customer-focused, value-added, data-driven and forward-looking encouraging innovation and sharing of best practices.

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In a press conference about the report, the president of NAPA, Terry Gerton, said, “We strongly recommend that a central personnel agency continue to exist, and that organization is an independent, enterprise-wide human capital agency and a steward of the merit system principles.” In the statute requiring the NAPA report, Congress gave OPM six months to provide a formal response. As of the time of writing, OPM had not yet submitted its response to Congress. The NAPA report and the upcoming OPM response may present an array of issues for continued congressional consideration regarding OPM.

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2021 Federal Employees Handbook