Springer makes her mark in Washington
OPM director applies management skills to creating a more effective federal workforce
Linda Springer is one of those rare political appointees who never worked for a political candidate and never donated money to a presidential campaign.
In September 2002, President Bush nominated her to become controller of the Office of Management and Budget. She served in that position from March 2003 to January 2005. Two months later, Bush nominated her for director of the Office of Personnel Management, the position she holds today.
“Even though I’m a political appointee,” Springer said, “I didn’t know anyone in the [Bush] administration. No one knew me. I was a complete unknown to anyone here in Washington.”
Springer knows that her story is unusual. She didn’t try to hide her then-lack of knowledge of how political Washington, D.C., works when she applied for a job in the Bush administration because of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
“I’d never worked in government before, and I hadn’t considered doing so, but that changed things for me,” she said.
Recounting her naïveté, Springer said she sought a federal job by sending letters to the congressional leaders from her home state of Pennsylvania. “I didn’t realize that the mail wasn’t getting through at that time,” she said. Because of anthrax threats, congressional mail was delayed until postal inspectors could ensure that it was safe for delivery.
“So I had a couple of false starts, but eventually I managed to get on the presidential personnel radar screen,” she said.
A former actuary, Springer didn’t need much time on the job as OPM’s director to realize that the most significant event she would deal with was the retirement of federal employees born between 1946 and 1964 — the baby boomers.
“We will have vacancies to deal with at a higher rate than we have had in the past,” she said, adding that expecting the federal government to deal with that challenge without making significant changes is unrealistic.
“We’ve got to be creative,” she said. “Our job is to make sure that agencies are open-minded and prepared so that they can maintain an effective civilian workforce. That will be our biggest and No. 1 job.”
Springer has begun speaking publicly about the possibility of having employees who retire come back into the federal government on a part-time basis.
The wave of federal retirements, which will peak between 2008 and 2010, will force OPM and federal agencies to make succession plans, not only at the executive level but throughout agencies, Springer said. As a former insurance industry executive, Springer is comfortable talking about risk and using risk analysis in succession planning.
Analyzing risk means finding answers to questions such as, “What’s the risk to the organization if [a] position stays open?” she said. “Who in the organization do we start to get trained to cover those responsibilities? Are they things that we need to continue to do? Is this a time that we can consider doing things differently?”
Others who work with Springer say she is conscientious about communication with groups that will be most affected by such changes. “I would say we have a good working relationship with her,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “She respects NTEU as the representative of employees and is willing to talk to us.”
Springer does have a few regrets about coming to Washington and taking a position that robs her of most of her leisure time.
“I’d like to play a little more golf,” she said. “I’d like to do a little more gardening once I’m not living in an apartment.” And she would enjoy having more time to play her cello. “I used to be in a pretty good, semi-pro type of orchestra, and I’d like to get back to that someday,” she said. “The Philadelphia area has good opportunities for that.”
Had her life taken different turns, music could have been a career, she said. “You wouldn’t have seen me down here with the National Symphony Orchestra, but I don’t think I would have starved to death,” she said.
Considering everything that has happened since she tried to figure out how Washington worked, Springer said, choosing a career in management turned out to be the right decision for her.