A better federal workforce policy will require the Office of Personnel Management to become a more independent and authoritative agency, rather than being broken apart into other departments, a long-awaited National Academy for Public Administration study determined March 17.

OPM was created by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 to spearhead and improve human capital management in the federal government, and the NAPA report notes that the agency as it stands today is not fulfilling that original objective.

“We strongly recommend that a central personnel agency continue to exist, and that organization is an independent, enterprise-wide human capital agency and a steward of the merit system principles,” said Terry Gerton, president and CEO of NAPA, said at a press briefing on the report.

“But that organization, OPM as we know it today, really needs to build its staff capacity, encourage innovation and adopt a more data-driven, accountable and forward-looking capital management approach.”

The study itself began after the Trump administration determined in 2018 that a more efficient government would involve breaking apart OPM’s functions and placing them under the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration.

Employee groups and many members of Congress opposed the implementation of that plan — due in part to what they felt was insufficient research and justification for the approach — and ordered Trump officials to halt all progress until an independent study could be conducted.

“OPM would not be nearly as effective if its policy functions were merged into OMB. We did conclude that it’s IT functions were substantially different in many cases from the IT functions performed by GSA, so that the efficiency would not be nearly as great as it might appear on the surface for a merger of IT systems,” said Peter Levine, one of the NAPA fellows that led the study, on a press call.

The NAPA report in fact found that OPM should be moving away from many of the reasons used to justify a split in the first place.

Currently, the OMB deputy director for management holds a lot of the authority for workforce policymaking, diminishing the authority the OPM director has among the president’s leadership officials.

The OMB deputy director for management, meanwhile, has other policy responsibilities that distract from the ongoing needs of federal workforce management.

The fact that OPM has had such inconsistent leadership over the past few years, and that the OMB deputy director for management has even been placed as the acting director of OPM, makes that authority all the muddier.

“We think it’s important that the government’s leading agency be able to speak loudly and clearly on this, that a mix of too many voices speaking on this undermines the government’s ability to point a clear direction, and the relationship with OMB undermines that direction,” said Levine.

“We don’t think OMB should act as a super OPM, because it’s not staffed that way and it’s not resourced that way.”

Without more concrete authority and the time to invest in initiatives like the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, the director of OPM loses influence and insight over how the workforce is managed at different agencies.

“Because the CHCO council wasn’t formally meeting with the director of OPM as chair, they started informally meeting without the director even being there. That’s an indication of what OPM was among the chief human capital officers of the federal government,” said Levine.

The report did not go so far as to recommend that the OPM director be designated as a Cabinet-level position, though Levine said that the authors largely agreed that it would be a good idea to elevate the position and that would be a decision largely up to the individual president.

The report also envisions OPM moving away from a fee-for-service model — which was used as part of the justification to merge the agency with GSA’s largely fee-for-service operations — and instead receive appropriated funding for much of its operations.

“There are areas where it is appropriate for OPM to be charging fees for services, where OPM is providing something unique and building something unique for an agency. What we don’t think OPM should be doing is charging to interpret the rules that it writes and to help agencies navigate their way through the system,” said Levine.

That change also relies on a streamlining and simplification of federal HR authorities and regulations, the complexity of which have caused OPM to spend a majority of its effort to oversee and ensure compliance from other agencies.

If OPM no longer needs to regulate compliance on each activity an agency undertakes, as it currently does, a more annual or biannual oversight model frees up OPM efforts to plan for ways to improve and study best practices.

“For too long, OPM has been unable to achieve its potential of infusing data and evidence into short- and long-term workforce planning. This NAPA study offers a blueprint to rebuild OPM and fortify merit system principles and expertise throughout government so no future administration can attack its foundations,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., in a statement.

The report also concluded that Congress should provide greater funding for an IT overhaul at the agency, while OPM should work on not only improving the workforce data it collects but also making that data more available for study and insights.

“We are gratified that the report affirms the importance of a strong, independent and forward-leaning OPM in order to meet the modern human capital management needs of the federal government,” said acting OPM Director Kathleen McGettigan in a statement.

“The effort to dismantle OPM under the previous administration was disruptive to agency operations and detrimental to workforce morale. We are pleased to close that chapter and eager to continue the important work of reinvigorating the agency, rebuilding workforce capacity, implementing a sustainable funding model and reasserting OPM’s posture as a strategic partner to federal agencies on matters of human capital management.”

The report’s recommendations cover actions taken by both the executive branch and Congress, and the authors encouraged a reestablishment of subcommittees in both chambers that focused specifically on workforce needs. That said, improvements to OPM’s operations and status within the federal government would not be completely reliant on the legislative branch.

“We think that OPM has a significant ability to right its own ship. There are places where it’s going to need help from Congress, but there are things that can be done to change the culture and become more flexible and do a better job of helping build the human capital system,” said Levine, adding that the new Biden administration looks poised to take the right actions to improve OPM operations.

“I think that this administration has not only undone several things from the last administration, it has also sent out signals that it thinks the workforce matters and that human capital matters.”

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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