With No Confirmed Director, OPM Could Struggle to Implement Trump’s Agenda

Office of Personnel Management headquarters in Washington. Office of Personnel Management headquarters in Washington. Mark Van Scyoc/Shutterstock.com

The federal government’s human resources office faces a slew of responsibilities in the coming months and years as President Trump aims to shrink many agencies and revamp the civil service, but it is tackling those issues without any leadership handpicked by the administration calling for those changes.

Kathleen McGettigan, the current acting director, is a career employee who has worked at OPM for 25 years. She assumed the position simply because she was next in line, not because the White House selected her. She now finds herself tasked with assisting agencies as they engage in mandated workforce reductions, overhauling the governmentwide performance management system and addressing hiring and firing concerns, in addition to the day-to-day tasks involved in being the personnel director for more than 2 million employees.

McGettigan, former officials say, will likely encounter a series of barriers as she undertakes those taxing reform efforts due to her precarious status. While Trump’s nominee for OPM director recently withdrew his name from consideration, the president could replace her at any moment. At a time when the administration is attempting to remedy some of the most deeply rooted problems in the federal workforce, those who know best the the agency at the center of those efforts say it is likely to take a cautious approach under the leadership of a placeholder figure.

“Obviously it’s going to be very tough for her be able to get in to be heard in the White House,” said Donald Devine, who headed up OPM during President Reagan’s first term. “Clearly, it’s a problem.”

Devine knows something about what McGettigan faces; he helped the Reagan administration slash 100,000 federal jobs and cut employees’ benefits, which he called a “miracle” and said he was only able to accomplish due to his close relationship to the president. He also maintained friendships with people in the White House he initially formed while working on the campaign and in the transition. Rather than helping to institute the sweeping changes Trump has called for through executive order and subsequent guidance from the Office of Management and Budget, Devine predicted McGettigan will have to focus on “simple, direct” OPM functions “that are uncontroversial.”

A former George W. Bush appointee who worked with McGettigan said she is “extremely capable,” but explained she still would not be able to accomplish what a confirmed director could.

“Career directors will be more reticent in voicing to the administration what [OPM] needs,” the former appointee said. “It will set the agency back.”

The official noted the particular importance of OPM’s role in carrying out Trump’s agenda.

“OPM is kind of in the crosshairs of all this downsizing,” he said, adding agencies will have to rely on OPM for advice on strategies, such as buyout and early retirement programs. “You need a confirmed director in place.”

The administration would benefit from a point person to handle workforce issues, the former officials said; someone who can sit in on Chief Human Capital Officers Council and Presidential Management Council meetings, work with congressional oversight leaders and communicate with other political leaders in government.

“You can’t simply dismiss the fact that you don’t have a personnel VP, in effect,” Devine said. “Any business or company is going to miss having a personnel director.”

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For its part, OPM denies the lack of leadership is having any impact on its operations.

“Under the leadership of acting Director Kathleen McGettigan, the mission of OPM continues to be fulfilled daily,” a spokesperson said. “This includes implementing new initiatives, as appropriate.”

Many agencies are helmed by acting officials—especially in the tumult of the early months of a new administration—and the lack of a confirmed director is not inherently paralyzing. OPM has not had a confirmed director since 2015, when Katherine Archuleta resigned amid scandal over a massive data breach, and has never waited this long for an appointed leader in its 38-year history. In the interim, Beth Cobert served as acting director while simultaneously awaiting confirmation to the same position (as her tenure drew to a close earlier this year, Cobert told Government Executive she did not feel inhibited by her designation, saying she was named acting director, “So I acted.” All of her decisions, however, were thrown into question by a recent Supreme Court ruling and remain subject to a court challenge.)

The agency is moving forward as best it can with its new responsibilities, with officials recently saying they have been working with agencies to develop strategies to layoff workers and improve performance management. It has also set up a dedicated team to expedite the approval of separation incentive authority.

Kristine Simmons, vice president for government affairs at the Partnership for Public Service, said OPM may run into speed bumps as it attempts to assist agencies in other elements of civil service reforms.

“Agencies are anxious for tools and resources" to help them manage their workforces as they move forward with their agency reform agendas, said Simmons, who oversees the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition. “OPM needs to be a part of that conversation,” which she noted is hard to do without a Senate-confirmed director. Simmons added that it's unclear if McGettigan will feel empowered to institute OPM's own internal reform agenda. Career OPM employees will hunger for the “strategic direction of the agency that lays out a roadmap for the whole team,” she said.

While the agency tries to flex its muscle and offer its expertise, McGettigan may face obstacles in serving as OPM’s ambassador.

“Agency heads and department secretaries will feel more comfortable talking peer to peer,” the former Bush appointee said. “Acting is not peer to peer.” Interacting with a career employee does not allow for “straightforward communications,” he added, as other agency heads will assume that an acting individual will not hold the position for much longer.

In other words, OPM will attempt to function normally, but may struggle to truly exert its influence.

Having a career leader in place in lieu of a political appointee means "you don’t have OPM at the real table where the real decisions are made,” the former official said.

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