President Donald Trump has reordered the list of people who would take over running the Office of Personnel Management in the absence of a director and deputy director, a move that would place one of his administration’s appointments in a more favored position.

The Dec. 10 memorandum dictates that, should there be no director or deputy director for the agency, OPM will be led, in order, by:

  1. Chief of Staff;
  2. General Counsel;
  3. Associate Director for Employee Services;
  4. Chief Management Officer;
  5. Chief Financial Officer;
  6. Associate Director of Retirement Services; and
  7. other associate directors in the order in which they have been appointed as such.

The director and deputy director of OPM are both Senate-confirmed positions, meaning that an incoming Biden administration would be dependent on the Senate schedule to bring in official leadership.

Beneath those two, the chief of staff and general counsel are both noncareer appointees, meaning that they are chosen by OPM and serve at the pleasure of that agency. When then-President Barack Obama left office in January 2017, both of the officials serving in those positions at the time also left the agency.

The changes to the organizational chart could therefore become relevant if, lacking noncareer leadership, the agency then moves down the list to the current associate director of employee services, a career appointee position currently held by Dennis Kirk.

Kirk was previously one of Trump’s choices to join the now-vacant Merit System’s Protection Board, but his nomination stalled after vociferous opposition from federal unions. While at OPM, Kirk has also been centrally involved in the implementation of even more controversial Trump executive orders that restrict federal collective bargaining.

Chief Management Officer Kathleen McGettigan, who has been with the agency for a couple decades and served as acting director of OPM just after Trump took office, would have been next to take up the director post again, if Trump had not reorganized the succession structure.

McGettigan herself gained the director position after an August 2016 order by Obama restructured the succession in her favor.

So the decision to reorder OPM leadership succession is not a wholly unusual one, as past presidents have tinkered with who could possibly be in charge of the agency about once per term and often in election years over the past few decades.

However, since 2005, the General Counsel has consistently topped the succession list, and Trump’s order reverts to former President George W. Bush’s 2003 decision to place the Chief of Staff at the top. That 2003 memorandum was the first OPM succession issued under the presidential authorities granted by the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998.

The federal personnel office under Trump has seen an unusual amount of turnover, as the agency has had two Senate-confirmed directors and three acting directors in the last four years.

The president also has the discretion to designate an acting director outside of the normal succession list, as Trump did in tapping then-deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, Margaret Weichert, for the interim role.

Biden could therefore subvert the succession plan by appointing someone else entirely shortly before taking office, as Obama did in 2009 by appointing an acting director to take over from the Bush-era agency head just three days after his inauguration.

“The change in order of succession at the Office of Personnel Management will have no impact after Inauguration Day. At that time, President Joe Biden will be able to appoint his own acting OPM director,” Partnership for Public Service President and CEO Max Stier said in a statement.

“OPM should be focused on the presidential transition in a professional and nonpartisan way. The agency has yet to issue a transition guide for agencies on personnel issues, as it did in September 2016, and it has yet to suspend the Qualifications Review Board process for the hiring of career Senior Executive Service applicants as has traditionally been done after elections when there is a change in presidents.”

Along with the change in OPM succession, Trump also issued an alteration to the succession plan for the Department of Defense that moves officials considered loyal to his administration closer to the top.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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