Personnel agency cracks down on appointees ‘burrowing’ in

Agencies must gain OPM’s approval before converting political employees to career jobs at any level, even in nonelection years.

The Office of Personnel Management on Thursday announced it will monitor movement of political appointees to career civil service jobs continuously to better protect against politicization of the merit system. In a memorandum to agency heads, Director John Berry said starting in 2010 all agencies must get OPM's permission before giving current or recent political appointees competitive or nonpolitical excepted service positions. The new policy applies 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.

The increased oversight is designed to prevent a practice known as "burrowing in," where agencies allow appointees to remain in government at the end of an administration by giving them career jobs without making them go through a fully competitive application process.

"In light of the historical origins of the civil service system, OPM's role as guardian of the merit system is especially important when a federal agency selects a political appointee for a position in the civil service," Berry wrote in the memo. "While political appointees may not be excluded from consideration for federal jobs because of their political affiliation, they must not be given preference or special advantages."

The new policy defines recent appointee as someone who has held a political job within the past five years. OPM will check the appointments to "ensure they comply with merit system principles and applicable civil service laws."

According to the memo, career senior executives will conduct the reviews to "avoid any hint of political influence."

Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said he was impressed the administration had the foresight to make this change during its first year. "Typically, this is not an issue that anyone ever thinks about, until election time," he said.