After NAPA’s big OPM report, what’s next?

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It was never really about the merger, but the publication of a highly-anticipated report on what to do with the Office of Personnel Management seemed to bring a sigh of relief to some in the federal community last week.

The agency itself said it was ready to “close that chapter” on the previous administration’s “efforts to dismantle OPM.” 

Those are the agency’s words, not mine.

I’m not sure anyone expected the National Academy of Public Administration to offer a ringing endorsement of the previous administration’s proposal to merge OPM with the General Services Administration or any other agency, and that was never really the intent of the study.

Instead NAPA painted a picture of an agency that — due to funding shortfalls, inconsistent leadership and a myriad of other long-festering problems — was ill-equipped to lead, even as agencies sought out OPM’s leadership and guidance on some pretty tricky challenges facing today’s federal workforce.

Take what happened with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council over the last year or so as an example of the dysfunction. By law, the OPM director is the chairman of that council and responsible for setting meetings and an agenda.

But according NAPA, acting OPM leadership didn’t convene any formal meetings between March 2020 and January 2021.

CHCO members eventually took matters into their own hands and began to meet by themselves. Neither OPM nor the Office of Management and Budget were invited to participate at first, though they eventually joined later meetings to listen.

It’s probably not a great sign when the members of a group break away from their leader to form their own, more productive club.

Another example? Leadership turnover.

Leadership instability has been a persistent problem well before the Trump administration. NAPA notes the last OPM director to serve a full, four-year term was John Berry between 2009 and 2013.

By our calculations, two permanent OPM directors led the agency for a total of 428 days over the last four years, while acting leaders handled the remaining 1,033 days.

The uncertainty of the OPM-GSA merger forced other senior career leaders to leave as well.

“Staff capacity was a key concern consistently voiced by internal and external stakeholders, alike,” the academy said. “As mission critical career leadership departed, and along with them institutional HR expertise, a number of those positions were filled by political appointees (‘senior advisors’) with varying degrees of knowledge or experience in human capital management.”

Some political appointees took on temporary and acting positions at OPM while they waited for confirmation to positions at other agencies, NAPA said.

We reported a couple of them, including Dennis Kirk, who led one of OPM’s key policy shops. Former President Donald Trump nominated Kirk to lead the Merit Systems Protection Board , but his confirmation stalled in the Senate for years.

We knew there were more political appointees coming in and out of OPM in recent years, but NAPA confirmed just how many there were.

The agency had a total of 89 political appointees come and go throughout the Trump administration, according to the academy. By contrast, a total of 73 appointees worked for OPM during the Obama administration’s two terms.

“Entering the start of fiscal 2021, there were 39 appointees, the highest number historically, eclipsing the prior high of 38 that occurred during the Reagan administration,” the report reads. “Four of the appointees, including the associate director in employee services, were leading program units, traditionally led by career staff. Since 1981, the number of political appointees has varied from a low of 15 to the most recent high of 39.”

The influx of “senior advisers” created confusion for career staff. In some cases, the roles and responsibilities of these advisers were virtually identical to the ones that career staff were supposed to have, NAPA said.

The academy offered up 23 recommendations that it believes will set OPM on a better path.

My colleague Tom Temin wrote about NAPA’s recommendations for OPM last week, noting Congress likely wouldn’t give them the attention they deserve.

I won’t offer any predictions, but Congress’ track record with large, 100-plus page-long reports is a bit of a mixed bag.

The Senate Armed Services Committee just got around to a lengthy report from the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service, a year after it published 124 recommendations. Keep in mind, the committee asked for those recommendations, and they addressed, in part, all those tricky challenges with federal hiring and veterans preference.

NAPA didn’t recommend breaking off bits and pieces of OPM to send them to other agencies to fix. Instead, the academy suggested a kind of complete shift in mindset — one where the highest levels of government (Congress included) are engaged in federal human capital management and a single, independent agency is elevated and given the tools necessary to lead the federal civilian workforce.

NAPA got into weeds, recommending statutory changes and clarifications on OPM’s role, mission statement and even the kinds of authorities and oversight responsibilities the agency currently has.

It’s not easy stuff, especially in today’s environment, when the headlines of the day often drive congressional oversight committees.

We’ll see who’s up to the task.

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