OPM officials released new guidance reminding federal agencies to guard against the practice of political burrowing, adding best practices.

OPM officials released new guidance reminding federal agencies to guard against the practice of political burrowing, adding best practices. Douglas Rissing / Getty Images

OPM reminds agencies of burrowing rules ahead of election season

All proposed appointments to career competitive service or Senior Executive Service positions must be reviewed by the federal government’s dedicated HR agency.

The Office of Personnel Management last week gave agencies a reminder that as campaign season approaches, officials should be vigilant against efforts to “burrow” political appointees into career positions in the federal government’s competitive and Senior Executive services.

In a memo to agency heads, OPM’s associate director for merit system accountability and compliance Mark Lambert and associate director for workforce policy and innovation Veronica Hinton addressed the controversial practice, which is legal, albeit with a strict set of regulations to ensure political appointees are qualified for career roles they’re lined up for.

“During this presidential election year, we would like to remind agency heads of the need to ensure all personnel actions remain free of political influence or other improprieties and meet all relevant civil service laws, rules and regulations,” they wrote. “All official personnel records should clearly document continued adherence to federal merit principles and remain free of any prohibited personnel practices.”

OPM conducts reviews of all agency appointments of current or former political appointees into competitive service and non-political excepted service jobs prior to their implementation. Prior to 2010, the HR agency only conducted these reviews during presidential election years, but bipartisan resistance to the practice of burrowing in Congress led to the change.

Since then, OPM has issued frequent reminders that the hiring of political appointees must be supported by merit system principles. In 2022, the agency created a check list of tasks an agency should complete as they prepare to submit a proposed hiring for OPM review.

A GAO audit of political appointee burrowing between 2016 and January 2021—covering the end of the Obama administration and the entirety of the Trump administration—found that OPM denied roughly 20% of burrowing requests. But 23% of conversions—37 in total—were implemented prior to asking OPM’s permission, in contravention of government policy, of which 10 hires were ultimately deemed improper, requiring agencies to take steps to address OPM’s concerns.

Accompanying OPM’s memo is a list of “Do’s and Don’ts” for agencies to follow as they consider hiring political appointees into more permanent roles.

“OPM seeks to ensure that the merit system principle of fair and open competition is protected [during the hiring process],” the memo states. “With this in mind, the two most common reasons for OPM not to approve a selection are: the new position appears to have been designed solely for the individual who is being selected; and/or competition has been limited inappropriately.”

The HR agency highlighted making public job announcements through USAJOBS when filling vacancies from outside the agency’s existing workforce, following regulations governing hiring employees from other federal agencies and working with chief human capital officers and HR directors to ensure a hiring decision follows merit system principles and obtains all needed internal agency approvals prior to asking OPM for approval.

Conversely, OPM recommended a pair of pitfalls agencies should avoid during the process.

“Don’t create or announce a competitive or excepted service vacancy for the sole purpose of selecting a current or former political appointee, Schedule C employee or noncareer SES member,” the agency wrote. “Don’t remove the Schedule C or noncareer SES elements of a position solely to appoint the incumbent into the competitive or excepted service.”