Collaboration Between OPM and OMB: Is It Even Possible?
Could government's HR office really “work in concert” with the White House budget office, as a new report recommends, in light of OMB’s clear attempt to eliminate the independent personnel agency?
In a recently issued report, “Elevating Human Capital: Reframing the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Leadership Imperative,” the National Academy of Public Administration responded to former President Trump’s attempt to choke off OPM’s independent HR policy development and implementation role. To those who may have forgotten, the prior administration insisted that all HR policies initiated by OPM first be approved by the White House Office of Management and Budget’s deputy director for management. It then closed off independent policy development by dual-hatting the OMB management director as the acting director of OPM. To guarantee total control, the former president sought to permanently eliminate OPM’s policy role created in the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, by merging OPM into the White House budget office.
NAPA recommended instead that Title 5 be amended to elevate the role of the OPM director to become “the principal advisor to the president on human capital” (emphasis in original), to provide “governmentwide leadership in strategic human capital management,” rather than reporting to the OMB deputy director for management; an expansion of its new role to include all civilian personnel systems; and to “lead in the development of data and data analytics … to inform policy, oversight, and services.”
NAPA’s rationale was to ensure the OPM director remains a non-political, independent “steward of the merit system,” and to improve the quality of HR data collection “to realize the untapped potential of data analytics as key drivers and assets in human capital development.”
If these recommendations are adopted, the OPM director will not report through the OMB director to the president; rather, the OPM director would have a “seat at the table” with the OMB director when HR policy is finalized. Using this new-found independence and elevated responsibility, would OPM be more effective creating, implementing, and evaluating human resource policy by partnering with OMB?
NAPA recognized that a seat at the table does not automatically guarantee the ability to influence those at the table. To achieve that goal, OPM needs to fundamentally transform itself into “a state-of-the art human capital organization capable of elevating and supporting human capital as a strategic priority across the federal enterprise and address the needs of a 21st century federal workforce.” No small task.
Assuming OPM does design new, creative, innovative HR policies, there is no guarantee that its policy will be implemented. Among the 137 independent executive agencies and 268 units in the Cabinet identified by USA.gov, some will need support, others will need prodding, and some will be resisters.
NAPA recognized the need for agency support, and recommended the “fee for support” model currently used by OPM be eliminated. OPM support for agencies should be provided free of charge: “services and assistance that support agencies’ implementation of government-wide HR policies … should be provided without cost” to an agency; a laudable policy and a significant increased cost to OPM.
Similarly, good HR policy, when implemented, does not guarantee improved agency performance. OPM needs the ability to constantly measure performance success as its new policies are implemented, to enable agile changes. The NAPA recommendations did not recognize this need.
NAPA hopes Congress will increase OPM funding to carry out its new responsibilities, which may or may not materialize. In the meantime, is it possible for OPM and OMB, as NAPA suggested, to “work in concert” and use existing staff to achieve “administration priorities” while ensuring OPM is “the clear lead on human capital matters?”
“Working in concert” may be possible because OPM and OMB have the same outcome goal: improved agency performance. An information sharing arrangement might be established that includes OMB and OPM working together to gather information concerning HR policy implementation during OMB’s regular contact with agency representatives concerning budget implementation. OPM might provide OMB an opportunity to participate in designing new HR policies, the HR data to be collected, and the creation of a research agenda, while recognizing that OPM has the “lead.”
As NAPA points out, “Meeting the needs of a 21st century workforce will require a reinvigorated focus on strategic human capital management and performance.” We need all available resources working “in concert” to achieve the goal.
Robert M. Tobias is distinguished practitioner in residence at the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University, and the former president of the National Treasury Employees Union.