Inside the Federal Triangle Metro station in Washington, a major commuter hub for government employees.

Inside the Federal Triangle Metro station in Washington, a major commuter hub for government employees. Neil MacLean/

Few Political Appointees Are Burrowing In, but 25% Are Doing It Without Approval

OPM needs better oversight of political-to-career conversions, GAO says.

Federal agencies converted relatively few of their political appointees into career employees over the last five years, according to a new report, though one-quarter of those conversions were completed without proper oversight.

Just 69 appointees “burrowed in” to their agency from Jan. 1, 2010, to Oct. 1 , 2015, from the 32 federal agencies the Government Accountability Office audited. Most were Schedule C -- excepted service, appointed workers who serve at the pleasure of the agency head -- and non-career Senior Executive Service employees.

Seventeen of the burrowers did not receive approval from the Office of Personnel Management, GAO found, as is required by law. OPM completed post-appointment reviews for 13 of those cases in which the agency did not notify it of the conversion, and denied the switch in four instances. In four cases it did not review, OPM said the employees were no longer in government.

Six of the 17 conversions that did not receive the required permission from OPM occurred at the Homeland Security Department.

Agencies told OPM they struggled to understand the requirements for reporting conversions, but have already increased training so human resource officials have a better grasp of their responsibilities.

GAO said OPM should increase monitoring of conversions so no one attempting to burrow in does so without appropriate oversight. The HR agency denied it lacked a system to catch conversions, but said it had already put in place additional measures to bolster its efforts. A 2015 law now also requires OPM to verify that approved conversions actually occur.

Political-to-career conversions are down from GAO’s last report on the subject; the auditors identified 139 cases between May 2005 and May 2009. GAO conducted its updated investigation after four Republican lawmakers requested it last year. In August, acting OPM Director Beth Cobert sent a memorandum to agencies reminding them of their responsibilities in hiring political appointees and reporting their conversions.

OPM in 2010 announced that agencies would need its permission before giving current or recent political appointees competitive or nonpolitical excepted service positions. The new policy applied to jobs at all levels. Previously, the personnel agency oversaw such moves only during election years, unless the appointees were transferring to Senior Executive Service positions.

Trump campaign officials earlier this year expressed concern about the practice, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is leading Donald Trump’s transition effort, vowing to change civil service laws if necessary to root out any holdovers.