The Biden administration’s approach to changing the way federal employees are managed will largely fall in line with the changes envisioned in the National Academy of Public Administration’s March 2021 report on the future of the Office of Personnel Management, according to a formula response issued by the agency Sept. 13.
“The NAPA study unequivocally affirms the need for a strong, independent, and well-resourced OPM. Our response demonstrates our broad agreement and deep engagement with the study’s findings, as well as our commitment to many of the policy changes and financial investments it lays out for OPM to continue serving as the one, indispensable partner for federal agencies and their strategic human capital needs,” OPM Director Kiran Ahuja wrote in her letter to Congress on the agency’s plans.
“Our response also highlights OPM’s commitment to innovation and delivering results, from hiring for critical skillsets, to identifying new strategies for employee engagement, retention, and quality of life improvements. Taken together, the NAPA study and our response demonstrate a clear path for OPM to deliver on its charge, now and well into the future.”
The NAPA study, which was mandated by the 2020 National Defense Appropriations Act in response to Trump administration plans to break up OPM, marked a turning point in how the federal human resource agency’s role was seen in government operations.
The Trump administration’s plan focused on OPM’s IT components and fee-for-service model, a central mission of the General Services Administration, which Trump officials proposed to oversee much of OPM’s functions.
But the NAPA study concluded OPM shouldn’t be focused on fee-for-service anyway and should instead focus its efforts on providing more complete policy guidance, collecting valuable personnel data and determining the skills needs of both its agency and the government at large.
OPM’s formal response under the Biden administration agreed with NAPA: “OPM is not set up to be a shared service provider but is having to operate as such for the ongoing IT, procurement, financial management and other activities provided to [the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency].”
Background investigation functions previously conducted by OPM were relocated to DCSA in late 2019, though the defense agency still relies on many of OPM’s IT systems to conduct such investigations until their own, new system can get up and running.
In fact, the only recommendation issued by NAPA that OPM outright disagreed with was that the agency create a new office for strategic planning and policy, noting such functions already exist in the current OPM organizational structure.
“However, OPM recognizes the importance of enhanced enterprise-wide regulatory analysis and coordination and has developed strategies to address this within our Strategic Plan,” the response stated.
OPM also agreed its functions would be better suited by delegating certain “low-risk” authorities to the discretion of agencies and expanding their performance evaluation capabilities in a “trust, but verify” approach.
According to OPM analysis, the most expensive of the reform efforts proposed by NAPA and supported by agency leadership are those for collecting and analyzing workforce data more expansively and for modernizing severely outdated IT infrastructure.
But OPM’s agreement with NAPA recommendations does not necessarily mean such changes will immediately be put into effect.
As OPM noted in its response, many recommendations are targeted at Congress’s legislative and budgetary functions, which OPM can support but ultimately rely on lawmaker discretion.
Many of the changes already at the discretion of OPM also require significant involvement from other agencies or large budgetary changes, which depend on forces outside OPM.
Unlike the Trump administration’s plans for reshaping OPM, the Biden administration’s plans as previewed in this response are likely to get far less legislative pushback on substance, as they are based on the very study Congress mandated to get an objective view of the agency’s needs.
But many of the more substantial changes proposed by NAPA and OPM will require significant upfront investment from annual budgets, a dollar value that more fiscally conservative members of Congress may balk at.
According to the OPM response, the agency plans to release a finalized strategic plan for modernizing the agency in February 2022, and budgetary requests to support that plan will be outlined in President Joe Biden’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2023, usually released around the same time of year.
Jessie Bur covers the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees.