Agencies Warned Against Letting Election Season Influence Personnel Decisions

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The Obama administration warned agencies this week to pay particular attention to federal civil service rules during the presidential election season, and announced a ban on all bonuses for some members of the Senior Executive Service in the second half of 2016.

Agencies should root out any efforts by appointees to unfairly convert themselves into career employees -- a process colloquially known as “burrowing in” -- Office of Personnel Management acting Director Beth Cobert wrote in a memorandum this week. OPM and federal agencies must together ensure all prohibited personnel practices are avoided, Cobert said.

“During an election period, these requirements demand particularly close attention to ensure all agency personnel actions adhere faithfully to these principles,” she wrote.

In 2010, OPM began reviewing all conversions of anyone serving as a political appointee within the last five years to a competitive service position. The agency previously only reviewed such conversions in presidential election years. At the request of a bicameral group of lawmakers in November, the Government Accountability Office is working on a report on OPM’s reviews.

In a “frequently asked questions” guide attached to the memo, OPM said it has reviewed the hiring of political appointees for career jobs since the Jimmy Carter administration.

Cobert also said in the memo bonuses will be banned from June through inauguration day on Jan. 20, 2017, for all non-career Senior Executive Service and Schedule C employees. This will likely not hurt the workers, however, as all political appointees have endured a ban on performance awards since 2010 due to an order from President Obama.

As it does whenever an agency head leaves, OPM will impose a moratorium on SES Qualification Review Boards during the presidential transition. It will resume reviewing SES candidates “based upon the policy of the new administration.”

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said Wednesday the administration will begin “aggressively” planning transition activities in “early spring,” according to The Hill, though some preparations have already begun. The Senate and a House committee have approved a measure to codify that each major federal component has a transition leader in place at least six months before each presidential election, and that there is a career employee at the General Services Administration to oversee the entire process. 

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