Watch out for appointees "burrowing in," OPM warns

Be on the lookout for political appointees attempting to "burrow in" to career positions in the government, Office of Personnel Management director Janice R. Lachance warned agency heads in a recent memo.

Many politically appointed federal employees attempt to convert their work status from political appointee to career civil servant shortly before a presidential election in an attempt to remain in the executive branch-a practice known as "burrowing in."

With an upcoming change in administration, agency heads should carefully review all personnel actions, particularly those concerning moves from political appointee to career civil servant, Lachance said in a memo released this week.

During each presidential election period, OPM issues a set of instructions to agencies on adhering to the merit system principles, and warns them to avoid certain personnel practices that are prohibited by law. The instructions forbid agencies to convert schedule C, or political, appointments and noncareer SES appointments to competitive positions prior to OPM review and approval.

Political appointees cannot receive a career appointment in the same position currently occupied, or in a successor position, the memo said. Additionally, awards may not be granted to senior politically appointed officers from June 1, 2000 through January 20, 2001.

While career civil servants are hired using merit system principles-after fair and open competition-noncareer appointees have no tenure and serve at the pleasure of the agency head. Such appointees are typically responsible for formulating and advocating the current administration's policies.

In the fall of 1997, the General Accounting Office released a report that reviewed 36 career appointments made by 18 agencies between January 1996 and March 1997. Six of those cases raised enough suspicion of possible impropriety to warrant further review. Ultimately, GAO concluded the agencies had followed proper procedure in all six cases.

The memo instructs agencies to complete and sign the pre-appointment review record for their proposed personnel actions and hand it in to OPM by January 31, 2001.