Proposed OPM Reorganization Draws Widespread Criticism

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

The Trump administration’s proposal to shuttle the Office of Personnel Management’s service responsibilities to other agencies and bring its policy arm into the White House’s management structure drew nearly unanimous condemnation since it was announced Thursday, including from a former architect of the reorganization plan.

The plan would send the National Background Investigations Bureau, which is responsible for security clearance investigations across government, to the Defense Department, accelerating a congressional effort to move security clearance checks out of OPM that began with the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. HR Solutions, retirement claims processing and administration of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program would move to the General Services Administration, renamed the Government Services Agency, while OPM’s policy arm would become part of the Executive Office of the President.

Although Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director for Management Margaret Weichert suggested Thursday that the transition of policy offices from an independent agency to the White House could be done administratively, most experts are confident the changes would require legislation from Congress, from both legal and logistical standpoints.

“I think there’s very little here that can be done administratively,” said Linda Springer, who joined the Trump administration as a senior adviser at the OMB. “I can’t think of any that I could say definitively could be done without legislative action.”

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Springer, who retired last year, served as OPM director in the George W. Bush administration. She led the charge in getting the Trump administration's reorganization effort off the ground but is deeply disappointed in the outcome. 

“It certainly wasn’t what I had hoped they would come up with for OPM,” she said. Reducing the agency to a policy shop, she explained, would undermine the fundamental purpose of the agency.

“First and foremost, I believe in a central personnel agency,” Springer said. Such an entity creates a “firewall between the agency and the political personnel at the White House as it relates to personnel practices, particularly hiring and other actions, to be sure the oversight for compliance for merit systems principles is handled independently."

The Trump administration’s plan “at a minimum creates a perception that firewall is gone,” Springer said. “That’s something I find very troubling.”

'A Lot of Disruption' 

Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, said the plan to dismantle OPM as currently described is riddled with problems. He said the plan to remove OPM’s independent status, by moving what is left of the agency following the changes to service functions to the White House, could endanger the very principles upon which the career civil service has been based since the 19th century.

“Moving policy offices to EOP raises real questions, at a minimum, about the appearances of the critical responsibility OPM has in maintaining the merit system principles of the civil service, and you raise real appearance issues about independence,” Stier said. “One of the more important developments as a government was the recognition that our government couldn’t provide the services it needed to if it were based on political patronage . . . The Office of Presidential Personnel is [already] part of EOP, and we should not have any confusion between that and the civil service—they are very different operations and maintaining that independence [for the career civil service] is fundamental.”

Stier said he supported moving the National Background Investigations Bureau to Defense, citing the disruption that would be caused by only moving Defense-related clearance cases to the Pentagon as required under the NDAA. But he argued that jettisoning core HR responsibilities would be misguided in advance of an expected push for broad civil service reform and achieve little in terms of results.

“What’s the rationale for making a change that will result in a lot of disruption?” he said. “Until you can make a really compelling case of what you can achieve if you move these things to GSA that you couldn’t do at OPM, understanding the investment that’s needed to do that, it doesn’t make sense. And I haven’t seen that yet.

“Rather than focusing on restructuring OPM, they should focus their efforts on modernizing personnel rules that have last seen substantial change 40 years ago,” Stier said. “The administration might come back and say, ‘We want to do it all,’ but my view is: No. It’s not possible to do it all at the same time. And it may very well be that the changes that would be involved in modernizing civil service rules may lend themselves to a different form for the agency. But that’s why you resolve the strategy first and let the structure follow later.”

Springer similarly said there is a false presumption in the plan that the only way to make “operational reforms to OPM is by moving it somewhere else.”

“Reforming the things that need reforming could be done at OPM with the right funding and the right people,” Springer said. “They don’t have to move to GSA to be reformed.”

'There Will Be No OPM' 

Robert Shea, who served as OMB’s associate director for administration and government performance in the George W. Bush administration, said the proposal would mark the “abolishment” of OPM as we know it. He was more supportive of the ideas behind the reorganization, but acknowledged it would be an extraordinary lift to actually implement.

“I think the proposing and the doing are two totally different things,” said Shea, who spearheaded a smaller-scale reorganization effort under President Bush. “There’s going to be a substantial fight from important stakeholders against most of what’s been proposed in the reorganization report writ large. And this item in particular will bring out any member of Congress with an appreciable number of unionized [federal] workers, and [opposition] will be bipartisan.”

Moving service functions out of OPM could allow the agency’s policy people to provide better focus on the big workforce questions facing federal officials, such as how to attract the next generation of federal workers and how to approach issues like compensation, Shea said. But that impact might be marginal.

“That office would be able to focus better, since the leadership won’t be spending time on the background investigations process or its consulting services to agencies,” he said. “As far as effectiveness is concerned, I don’t think [other White House offices like] the Office of Federal Procurement Policy or Federal Financial Management or eGov, I don’t think those areas have been vastly improved because of that focus. But there’s a logic to it.”

Shea also cited those White House technical offices, including OFPP and OFFM, as proof that bringing an agency into the Executive Office of the President does not necessarily mean it will become more political or partisan in nature. But Stier disagreed, arguing that OPM’s mission of preserving merit systems principles automatically becomes suspect when stripped of its independence.

“I think OMB is an example where you have a phenomenal career staff there [in the White House], and it’s an amazing asset for our government,” Stier said. “That said, I think personnel is fundamentally different. The point I made about having a presidential personnel office and the civil service, in essence, right next to each other within EOP, that alone raises questions. Even if they aren’t in reality [being undermined], the appearance alone can create problems.”

Springer noted that in the administration’s new vision for the organization chart and goals for OPM, merit systems principles are not mentioned.

“It shows a lack of recognition for how important that is,” Springer said.

Additionally, she expressed concern that other parts of the reorganization plan will require shifting human capital and there will not be a central personnel agency to assist in those efforts. When Springer first set up reorganization meetings in April of 2017, she made sure to have OPM and chief human capital staff in every discussion so they could weigh in from a human resources perspective.

“If there’s ever a time that you need strong personnel human capital advice and guidance it’s in carrying out this massive of a plan,” Springer said. “At the very time you need it, they’re more or less devaluing the agency and saying, ‘We’re going to get rid of it.’ And that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.”

In Springer's view, her former agency faces an existential threat from the White House proposal: “In the end, there will be no OPM if this becomes reality.”

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