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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

Another Scandal, Another Resignation

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Pennsylvania Ave.  runs through downtown Washington, D.C. Pennsylvania Ave. runs through downtown Washington, D.C. Orhan Cam/Shutterstock.com

Katherine Archuleta may have set a federal record by making the trip from “I’m not resigning” to “I quit” in less than 24 hours. 

This suggests that perhaps there was a call from the White House encouraging the Office of Personnel Management director to reconsider her position. Either way, Archuleta’s days were numbered after Thursday’s announcement that the personal (in some cases, very personal) information of more than 21 million people was compromised in the latest OPM data breach. When members of the president’s own party begin to call for the resignation of an agency head, the handwriting is on the wall.

This is a time-honored exercise in accountability, Washington-style. In huge public scandals, somebody has to take the fall.

“We understand that, ultimately, the leader is responsible,” said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, after Archuleta’s announcement. “However, we feel that it is unreasonable to place the sole burden of blame for the data breach on the shoulders of Director Archuleta, who has served for less than two years. The OPM data breaches were years in the making, with many warning signs, and now all federal agencies, the administration, and Congress must come together to address the serious vulnerabilities of the government’s IT systems to ensure the protection of data, including employees’ personal information.”

And even if the administration and members of Congress do hold Archuleta solely responsible for the OPM breaches, was nudging her out the door the best course of action? The position of OPM director, after all, is about more than cybersecurity. It involves overseeing the entire federal personnel system, from hiring to retirement processing. Now who will maintain momentum on everything from fixing the federal jobs website to reducing the backlog of retirement applications?

Imagine a scenario in which, rather than accepting Archuleta’s resignation, the White House told her to stay on, but only to oversee personnel efforts. The administration could then have brought in a cybersecurity expert to head up the response to the breaches. Such a person could have been given a direct line to the White House, without reporting to Archuleta.

As it stands, Beth Cobert, the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget who has been assigned to head OPM on an acting basis, now must quickly not only become a cybersecurity expert, but figure out how to run personnel operations, too. And she must do it without a full leadership team in place at the agency.

It’s easy to understand the impulse to demand that heads roll in cases like this, involving serious breakdowns in government operations. But more important than the short-term satisfaction of seeing someone lose her job is the question of addressing the damage and making sure that problems don’t recur -- in cybersecurity or any of OPM’s other responsibilities.

(Image via Orhan Cam/Shutterstock.com)

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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