Personnel proposals invite abuse

The Office of Personnel Management has issued proposed regulations that it says would give federal managers greater latitude to promote, train or make other personnel moves that facilitate the conduct of agency operations. OPM developed these new regulations in response to the president's promise to streamline the federal government and what it termed "the rapidly changing federal workplace."

After taking a look at these proposed regulations, all I can say is, I'm glad I'm retired.

According to OPM, the regs would provide agencies with greater flexibility to design internal staffing programs while at the same time adhering to statutory "merit principles" and complying with recommendations contained in Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review (NPR).

The proposals provide a mechanism for career progression. Rather than tie employee advancement to an individual job, agencies can now design career paths that would permit employees to move freely up to a predetermined point in a defined field that requires certain basic qualifications and experience - for example, computer-systems analysis.

Proposals' Specs

Under the proposals, agencies must continue to use competitive selection from among "best-qualified" candidates based upon job-related criteria. But agencies also would have to establish merit staffing plans that would select employees for advancement based solely upon their relative ability, knowledge and skills after competing on a fair and open basis with other candidates.

Agencies, not OPM, would be held accountable for complying with merit staffing rules. To assist agencies, OPM would train them in merit staffing principles. A lot of good that would do, right?

Currently, if an agency wants an exception to the general rule that it fill jobs on a noncompetitive basis, it has to get OPM approval. That no longer would be true. In my mind, this provision would eliminate any check against flagrant abuse of merit staffing principles by some managers.

Under the proposed rules, if the right crowd got together within an agency, they could do just about anything they wanted without having to worry about an appeal to OPM. That's not to say that OPM always comes to the rescue of employees who are appealing management actions, but occasionally it does.

Agencies also could move employees noncompetitively within the same occupational group to similar jobs with a higher full performance level, so long as the new position did not exceed the journeyman level for similar positions in that occupational group. Competition would, however, be required for assignment to positions above the journeyman level.

OPM also would delegate to agencies the authority to adopt other exceptions to merit staffing plans if they determined that such actions were consistent with the spirit and intent of merit principles.

Another proposal deals with the number of candidates that would have to be considered when evaluating best-qualified candidates. It says there is no magic number of best-qualified candidates for a given job. It's up to the agency to decide what that number should be. Neither does OPM offer assistance on how an agency should come up with a number, except to require that the evaluation be based upon job-related requirements and applied fairly and consistently. Let's start a pool on how many agencies decide that it's OK for the best-qualified list to contain the name of just one employee.

Currently there are limits on the extent to which agencies can promote, demote or reassign employees. Under the proposed regulations, these restrictions would be removed. OPM says this would allow agencies to utilize employees in positions for which they are needed and allow workers to seek other opportunities. Sounds like a convenient tool for managers who want to "punish" employees by moving them to a job they hate.

All in all, the OPM proposals appear to delegate a substantial amount of latitude and authority to individual agencies to do as they wish, so long as what they do is consistent with merit staffing principles.

In the past, employees could appeal to OPM, then the Merit Systems Protection Board and, ultimately, the courts if they felt merit system principles had been violated. Considering the proposed delegation of authority by OPM to individual agencies (which I am sure has been received ecstatically by agency personnel officials), it now looks like there is one less place for federal workers to appeal if they believe they've gotten the short end of the stick.

That's a shame because feds are faring poorly these days when it comes to pay, morale and opportunity. This just may be the straw that breaks the camel's back and revitalizes federal employees union membership efforts. Not that I'm a particular fan of federal employees unions, but this just might be the right time and place for them to play a role. Stay tuned.


Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who is a regular contributor to Federal Computer Week and author of Bureaucratus Moneyline, a personal finance newsletter for feds, available by subscription on Federal Computer Week's Web page at


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