The Office of Personnel Management’s new leader plans to focus on initiatives that offer incentive for people to join and continue working in the federal government.
“The opportunity [is] to emphasize workforce morale, to support the workforce, to honor their contributions by ensuring that every salary is a living wage and that we’re making pay equity a central tenet of the federal payroll,” Director Kiran Ahuja said at an Aug. 4 press roundtable.
Ahuja plans to accomplish those goals by focusing on three policy priorities: rebuilding the workforce, defining the future of work and creating a workforce that looks like the country it serves.
President Joe Biden’s government inherited a workforce from the Trump administration that needs rebuilding and morale improvements, according to Ahuja, who added that there is “no way in the world” to achieve the priorities of each agency without the right people in the right positions.
Her plan includes making sure that pay is equitable and livable across the federal government, that benefits meet employee needs and draw in new talent, and that the government can attract that talented people early in their careers.
OPM itself will need to replace many people with senior, institutional knowledge who have left.
“I’m very well aware that the lack of capacity and people having to work much more to cover two or three jobs is affecting morale,” said Ahuja. “So the way that we can support our employees through spot awards, through time off as a reward for the work that they’re doing, we’re trying to think of every possible avenue that we have.”
Telework and the ability to have more flexible working hours and locations will play a significant part in boosting morale.
“We are bringing our whole selves because our whole environment is behind us on the video screen,” said Ahuja, adding that telework may help the government ride the “silver wave” of upcoming retirements by both encouraging older employees to work a bit longer and attracting younger people to fill their spots.
New policies will also strive to provide greater workforce development, both in professional advancement and training employees to learn essential technological skills.
“The federal government has an incredible legacy of upward mobility. If we think about it we have this rich history of the federal government providing a pathway to the middle class, and I think we can build on that,” said Ahuja.
Biden’s June executive order on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility will also play a large role in OPM’s workforce policy.
“I think we cannot deny the set of events that have taken place also related to the economic and racial reckoning that is taking place in this country, and I very much was involved in that on the philanthropic side,” said Ahuja.
“I am a true believer that an employer, a company [or] a government agency does well when it has a diverse set of backgrounds, viewpoints and experiences of the American people. I think we make better decisions, we bring different perspectives to understand how the work that we do and the policies that we push forward have an impact with a diverse group of people.”
Ahuja was the focus of some controversy during her confirmation for her past support of aspects of critical race theory, a method of studying racism that received significant backlash during the final days of the Trump administration.
“The diversity training that the government has had even during prior to Trump was focused on a broad range of issues of how we create a more inclusive environment,” said Ahuja.
“It’s important to acknowledge historic inequities and disparities, to understand why they exist, to appreciate where people might be coming from and again to think about, more broadly, how do you translate that appreciation and understanding to the work that you’re doing.”
But Ahuja also stated that training was just a small piece of efforts to expand the diversity and inclusion of the federal workforce, the rest of which will largely stem from Biden’s executive order.
Ahuja’s approach to federal workforce management rests on an entirely different assumption about government employment than taken by the Trump administration.
Under Trump, workforce policy centered on managing the performance of federal employees by expediting the removal process, reworking pay to reflect performance and restricting the influence that unions had on the federal workplace.
Ahuja’s planned policy instead focuses on how best to support and encourage the existing workforce, while offering incentives for new employees to join early in their careers.
“What I consider to be incredibly important for my role is that every single day that I wake up, I am considering the morale of this workforce and I am putting that front and center,” said Ahuja. “We want to continue to be the best partners that we can be to ensure that we have the best workforce.”
It is common practice among legislators and policymakers to compare the federal workplace’s structure and benefits to those offered in the private sector, whether to advocate for expanding those offerings or for cutting them down to industry norms.
But Ahuja characterized her policy goals as efforts to have the federal government take the lead.
“I think that there’s a real opportunity for the federal government to lean in as the largest employer in this country. So not only do we need to compete with other sectors, we also have this opportunity to really double down on our assets,” said Ahuja. “Positioning the federal government to really be the model employer.”
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.