Jacquelyn Martin/AP file photo

Watchdog: Proposed OPM-GSA Merger Continues to 'Evolve' Despite Lack of Legislation

Officials have continued to examine moving portions of OPM to GSA piecemeal, and still lack documentation for the legal authority and cost benefit analyses, the inspector general said.

An agency watchdog this month reported that even though Congress has widely panned the Trump administration’s plan to merge the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration, officials are still examining ways to implement portions of the proposal without legislation, and they still lack documentation to justify the changes.

As part of an annual report, dated Nov. 6 but published last week, outlining “top management challenges” at OPM, the agency’s Office of the Inspector General for the second year in a row listed the proposal to send most of OPM’s functions to GSA and its policy shop to the Executive Office of the President as an “environmental” challenge.

The Trump administration issued the merger proposal last year, although officials did not submit legislation to authorize the plan until May 2019. Congress was mostly critical of the plan in hearings, and both chambers declined to include funds to implement the plan in their respective appropriations bills.

Despite the lack of congressional approval, the inspector general reported that efforts to move forward with at least some parts of the proposal have “continued to evolve and every iteration of the proposed reorganization would fundamentally alter how agency functions and duties are performed.” Among the agency components explored for piecemeal transfer to GSA were the Performance Accountability Council, the Performance Management Office and the Chief Human Capital Officers Council.

The inspector general acknowledged that the agency “appears to be aware of the inherent risks” of a large-scale agency merger, and noted that a so-called ‘tollgate’ process is being used to examine the logistics and challenges of the proposal. Although leaders, including former Acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert, have tried to keep employees informed, the IG found that uncertainty still pervades the agency.

“[Weichert] participated in three town hall meetings focused on the reorganization; however, staff surveys have shown confusion and uncertainty related to the proposed merger,” the report stated. “OPM leadership must continue to educate the staff on the reorganization in order to have an engaged and productive workforce.”

In a statement, OPM spokesman Anthony Marucci acknowledged the critiques laid out in the report, and said the agency will work to keep employees abreast of developments.

“OPM understands OIG’s concern and unequivocally agrees about the importance of keeping our workforce informed about the agency’s mission and future,” Marucci said. “We also maintain our commitment to engage our people as developments happen in the decision-making process.”

The inspector general also raised alarm bells about the lack of documentation surrounding the proposal, both in terms of whether OPM has the legal authority to administratively move portions of the agency and in terms of whether it would even be beneficial to do so.

“OPM lacks a developed analysis of alternative approaches to the merger, a thorough cost-benefit analysis, a comprehensive timeline, and documentation that delineates which legal or regulatory authorities OPM will use to administratively transfer agency functions,” the report stated.

In particular, the proposed transfer of the two advisory councils and the Performance Management Office has a number of potential pitfalls that have gone thus far unaddressed by agency leadership.

“For example, the staff subject to the transition of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council to GSA would be appointed to new positions non-competitively once GSA cleared the positions through the Interagency Career Transition Assistance Plan,” the inspector general wrote. “Not only does this process not guarantee current OPM staff reemployment at GSA, OPM has not conducted an assessment of the costs associated with this workforce restructuring.”

Marucci said the agency is working to make sure all needed analysis is completed before implementing the merger.

“OPM continues to work with all of our stakeholders to help ensure we are doing our due diligence regarding any potential changes to the workforce,” he said. “In the meantime, we remain focused on our mission to deliver effective strategic workforce solutions to the federal government and outstanding customer service to the American taxpayer.”