OPM director tenders resignation

Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James, who helped to oversee the most substantive changes in civil service rules in 25 years during a three-and-a-half-year tenure, says she will resign her position at the end of January.

"I leave with a far deeper understanding and appreciation for those who dedicate a portion or all of their careers in service to our country," James wrote in a Jan. 10 letter to OPM staff. "Your defense of merit system principles, prohibited personnel practices, veterans' preference, and whistleblower protections have helped preserve the original spirit…. of the American civil service and provided the federal workforce with assurances in an era of overwhelming transformation."

James cited her staff's work to implement flexible savings accounts, health savings accounts and high-deductible health plans; pay-for-performance, and modernized payroll, training and hiring systems. She also praised the staff for their efforts in encouraging veterans to apply for civil service positions. "These are but a few of [the] concepts you translated into widely recognized achievements," she wrote.

James best may be remembered, however, for her role in shepherding the transition of the Homeland Security and Defense departments away from the decades-old General Schedule toward what she calls more flexible personnel systems that she says will give managers more control in determining how employees are paid, assigned work and disciplined.

When Congress created Homeland Security in late 2002, it granted the agency, in cooperation with OPM, the right to design a new personnel system. Similar authority was granted to the Pentagon in November 2003. Initially, critics accused OPM of abdicating its responsibility to oversee federal personnel rules. But OPM's work in designing the Homeland Security system won the praise of the Government Accountability Office. And, when the Pentagon tried to push through its own changes without OPM involvement, James shot off a letter of protest, forcing the Defense Department to submit to OPM oversight.

A press release announcing her resignation indicates that James took pride in OPM's work at the two departments. But she leaves with neither department having put forth final plans for their new systems. Both are expected to do so early this year.

James sparred with federal unions over the changes at Defense and Homeland Security. The unions argue that the changes will undermine civil service protections and encourage management favoritism. But Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, was conciliatory upon hearing of James' resignation. She called James "a forthright and honest public servant who showed respect for federal employees, their unions and the work they do."

James also oversaw the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, a group of about 20 agency leaders charged with overseeing long-term agency personnel planning. With the government facing a potential retirement wave, the chief human capital positions were created in 2002 to help boost attention to the issue of succession planning. James spent much of 2004 urging agency heads to improve the speed of their hiring systems.

Before arriving at OPM in July 2001, James was senior fellow and director of the citizenship project at the Heritage Foundation. In that role, she worked to boost support for conservative policies on Social Security, health care and education. James' conservative credentials are strong. She's also served as dean of the school of government at Regent University, where Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson is president and chancellor, and as senior vice president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Washington think tank.

James served as secretary of health and human resources for former Virginia Republican Gov. George Allen in the 1990s and also served in the George H.W. Bush administration as assistant secretary for public affairs at the Health and Human Services Department and as associate director at the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Last year, the Washington Post, reported on rumors that James plans to either run for statewide office in Virginia or work on Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore's gubernatorial campaign this year.

But James, in her letter, indicated that she did not have a new position or plan for the future, and wanted to keep the focus on her tenure at OPM. "As a young child supported by welfare and living in public housing," she wrote, "I could never have foreseen, or even imagined, being given the honor of serving a president."

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