OPM Modernization is Critical to Building the Federal Workforce the Nation Needs

Rigid and outdated hiring, pay and performance policies and practices are hurting government’s capacity to respond to urgent problems.

Every level of government is grappling with unprecedented challenges that are increasingly complex and interconnected. The urgent need for leaders, managers, technical experts and front-line workers in the right jobs, with the right skills, and at the right time has never been greater. Our human capital is one of the nation’s most important assets and a foundational element for effective governance.

Unfortunately, the federal government today is struggling to build a public service workforce that can both meet the unique demands of our time and position itself for the challenges to come. It is limited by rigid and outdated hiring, pay and performance policies and practices. Public managers and employees also struggle to adapt to the rapidly changing nature of work. As a result, we face a significant risk that soon many public agencies and organizations will not have the workforce capabilities necessary to achieve their critical missions and provide services to the public. 

The National Academy of Public Administration, of which we are Fellows, has been actively engaged in addressing this growing crisis. The Academy launched the Grand Challenges in Public Administration initiative in 2019 to address the government’s inability to respond with speed and agility to the ever-growing challenges and demands confronting it. One of the 12 Grand Challenges identified is modernize and reinvigorate the public service, and the Academy is working with stakeholders on ways to build a highly-skilled, agile and responsive public sector workforce.

In addition to a number of Academy studies, recent white papers by Academy panels, “No Time to Wait: Building a Public Service for the 21st Century, Parts I and 2,” offered strategies and steps to reform the federal government’s human capital system and processes and strengthen agencies’ ability to attract, recruit, retain, motivate, pay, and hold accountable a high-performing workforce to meet those challenges. The papers’ title underscores the urgency of actions required—there is literally “no time to wait.”

Addressing these complex public workforce challenges requires strong human capital leadership. Created by the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act as an independent agency, the Office of Personnel Management was expected to promote an efficient civil service system by delegating authorities to agencies, operating a robust oversight program to ensure consistency with merit system principles, and promoting innovation through research and demonstration projects. However, a lack of clarity and consensus on OPM’s mission and role, together with constrained funding and staffing resources and leadership turnover, have stymied OPM’s effectiveness in realizing the vision articulated in the law. 

Over the years, stakeholders and numerous studies, white papers and articles have highlighted long-standing problems in federal human capital management, noting that the federal government does not do an effective job recruiting, hiring, managing, or retaining a skilled workforce and stressing the need to modernize federal HR. Two major OPM data breaches identified in 2015 added to the list of complaints.

Significantly, since 2001 strategic human capital has held a place on the Government Accountability Office’s high risk list  of programs vulnerable to waste, fraud and mismanagement or in need of transformation. GAO’s latest High Risk List issued on March 2nd notes that federal talent management capabilities actually regressed over the past few years and highlights leadership commitment as a key issue. Consistently, critics point to the civil service system as too rigid and to OPM as too focused on compliance rather than customers, and assert the need to repair the agency’s credibility and reputation.

In 2018, the Trump Administration submitted a legislative proposal to significantly realign federal human capital management by moving OPM’s policy functions to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and all other functions to the U.S. General Services Administration, arguing that OPM was not structured or resourced to carry out its mission in a sustainable and secure manner. 

In response to that legislative proposal, the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act required the OPM director to contract with the Academy to conduct an independent study that addresses a series of questions surrounding OPM’s functions and responsibilities and the challenges OPM experiences in performing those functions.

Our panel’s final report, “Elevating Human Capital: Reframing the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Leadership Imperative,” was issued this week, and it complements the Academy’s earlier efforts by highlighting the important role of human capital management in carrying out agency missions and initiatives and solving complex problems. It documents OPM’s functions and the associated challenges in executing those functions.

Most importantly, the report offers a series of 23 recommendations designed to achieve the following objectives for OPM:

  • Human capital is recognized and supported as a strategic priority across government by the administration, Congress and federal agencies.
  • OPM’s role is reaffirmed and strengthened as the leader for strategic, governmentwide human capital management.
  • OPM’s approach to human capital management evolves from predominantly compliance-oriented to customer-focused, value-added, data-driven and forward-looking, encouraging innovation and sharing best practices.
  • OPM’s technology platforms are modernized, affording secure and efficient access to human capital data and systems supporting governmentwide human capital management.

The roadmap of recommended actions to meet these objectives shines a spotlight on the importance of human capital and critical workforce issues by reframing OPM’s mission and affording the agency the foundation needed to lead strategic, governmentwide human capital management.

Timing is fortuitous. With a new administration and Congress, the report provides an opportunity for a fresh look at changes OPM can make to become both the organization and the governmentwide leader it was always meant to be. The new administration cannot accomplish its ambitious agenda without an effective workforce—OPM is absolutely critical to this undertaking, and to the effort to build a 21st century public workforce that will benefit generations to come.

Terry Gerton is the President and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration. Janet Hale, who has served in senior leadership positions in five federal agencies and as CFO of the U.S. House of Representatives, is the Panel Chair of the OPM report. Both are Fellows of the Academy.