Conservatives bemoan disappearance of OPM official time docs
Officials at the federal government’s HR agency said a webpage housing sporadic reports on agencies’ official time use did not survive a recent website redesign, but suggested tweaks are ongoing.
A group of 10 Senate Republicans last week demanded that the federal government’s HR agency provide information on the removal of a webpage housing historical reports on the use of official time at federal agencies.
“We write to express concern of the decision by the Office of Personnel Management to remove a page from its website that has documented, for over a decade, the amount of ‘official time’ taken by employees of federal agencies,” wrote Sen. Martha Blackburn, R-Tenn., in a letter on behalf of the group. “As you know, ‘official time’ is defined as time used by federal employees to engage in labor union related activities instead of their assigned duties during regular work hours.”
Official time is not defined that way. It refers to time during which union officials in the federal workforce are paid to engage in representational activities, such as negotiating with management or representing colleagues in disciplinary hearings and grievance proceedings. Internal union activities, like soliciting people to become member or taking part in union elections, are not eligible for compensation via official time.
The practice was developed as a compromise: in exchange for labor groups being statutorily obligated to represent federal employees regardless of whether they are dues-paying union members, union officials are compensated by the government for that work, rather than be paid through union revenue.
At issue for the senators is the disappearance of a web page on OPM’s website that housed a series of reports on the use of official time at federal agencies, coinciding with the launch of a website redesign last summer. The most recent report, covering official time in fiscal 2019, remains available, albeit only via search engines. Archived copies of the remaining reports can be found on archive.org’s Wayback Machine.
An OPM spokesperson confirmed to Government Executive that the reports’ visibility on the agency’s website was a casualty of the website redesign, but did not say if or when they might be available in a public-facing manner. In the meantime, copies of past reports are available by request.
“The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 provides official time to federal employees to conduct certain union activities in recognition that unions have a statutory obligation to represent all bargaining unit members, regardless if they pay dues,” the spokesperson said. “Previous reports on official time are not currently available because OPM is reorganizing our website to improve navigation and customer experience.”
Blackburn and her colleagues urged the restoration of the page, citing its usefulness in oversight work, as well as a new iteration of the report relying on recent data.
“This webpage, which has been made available by various administrations since 2013, is critical for congressional oversight over the federal civil service workforce,” she wrote. “Further, it is also concerning that under this administration, OPM appears to have stopped creating official time reports which have been published since 1998. The American people deserve to know how much ‘official time’ is being conducted and funded by their hard-earned taxpayer dollars.”
But the history of reports on official themselves is convoluted, not least of which because only the oldest and most recent reports were actually required by law—the 1998 edition was in response to a one-time congressional requirement in a fiscal 1998 appropriations law, while the 2019 iteration was authorized by then-President Trump’s controversial 2018 executive order curtailing access to official time, which has since been rescinded by the Biden administration.
In 2002, then-OPM Director Kay Coles James began requiring her agency to compile the report, which continued on an annual basis until 2012, after which the reports were issued more sporadically. In the 2009 report, the Obama administration stressed that it was voluntarily continuing the previous administration’s policy documenting official time’s usage.
“OPM has produced reports on official time usage since 2002,” the report states. “Though there are no legal or regulatory requirements to publish any official time data, OPM chose to issue the call and guidance for reporting fiscal 2009 official time data in an Oct. 26, 2010 memorandum to federal departments and agencies.”