OPM unit fails in oversight role

According to a study by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the organization within the Office of Personnel Management set up to gauge the effectiveness of agencies' human resources management efforts has largely been unable to achieve its mission.

As every federal worker knows, the law requires OPM to ensure that federal agencies operate their human resources management programs in accordance with the standards of fairness, efficiency and objectivity called for by law. To do this, OPM maintains an oversight program that monitors the effectiveness of federal personnel laws, regulations and policies as well as agencies' compliance with them.

The MSPB, the organization that adjudicates federal employee claims but also evaluates the performance of agencies that participate in the merit systems process, recently evaluated the performance of the OPM oversight function. In my opinion, the MSPB findings indicate that OPM is not doing its job and that many improvements are needed.

One aspect of the MSPB report that is particularly noteworthy deals with the unit within OPM that oversees other agencies. OPM established this new organization, the Office of Merit Systems Oversight and Effectiveness (MSO&E), in 1995 to achieve three critical goals: to protect and promote a merit-based federal civil service; to identify opportunities for improving federal personnel policies and programs; and to help agencies meet mission goals through effective recruitment, development and utilization of employees.

Although the MSPB uses diplomatic language in its report, it appears to this observer that the board believes the MSO&E office has failed in all three aspects of its mission. In the tactful words of the MSPB, OPM's success in achieving the goals has been "uneven."

For the goal of protecting and promoting a merit-based federal civil service, the MSPB found that 52 percent of the 23 departments and independent agencies surveyed rated MSO&E's effectiveness as "very great" or "considerable." Although the MSPB considers this a positive response, I don't. The merit staffing system represents the heart of the civil service, and I would regard only an approval rating of 80 percent or better as positive. Anything below that number suggests to me that MSO&E is not really doing very much. If 52 percent of agencies are pleased, that means 48 percent are not.

For the goal of identifying opportunities for improving federal personnel policies and programs, only 26 percent rated MSO&E's effectiveness positively.

For the goal of helping agencies meet mission goals through effective recruitment, development and utilization of employees, 22 percent gave MSO&E a positive rating -- another failing grade, I'm afraid.

In its report, the MSPB made the interesting observation that the government lacks "clear standards for measuring effectiveness." The board noted that in light of the Clinton administration's heightened focus on results, the government needs to determine what types of performance data agencies should measure. That, in turn, creates a challenge to develop objective measurement standards. The MSPB reports that this will be "a particularly difficult undertaking" for human resources managers because so many aspects of this area seem to lend themselves more to subjective assessment than to objective measurement.

Private-Sector Model an Illusion

Truer words were never spoken. The current administration has placed too much emphasis on the idea of reinventing government and using private-sector practices. While this may play well in Peoria, the MSPB has rightly identified that the government does not function as the private sector does. Government agencies do not produce widgets. Many federal employees have no measurable output. Their jobs involve creating and writing policies and procedures or providing advice. You cannot measure their performance in a meaningful way, and OPM should not waste its time trying.

The government should not count how many pieces of paper a policy or procedures analyst produces each week. That would be a meaningless exercise. Nor should it measure the quality of an analyst's thinking, writing or advice.

Elsewhere in its report, the MSPB notes that OPM's oversight program has focused on agency personnel offices as the point of accountability for human resources management. But the report points out that the trend toward delegating human resources responsibilities to line managers has diminished the accountability of personnel offices. Oversight procedures and practices that focus heavily on the personnel office will not work when line managers and supervisors are making the human resources decisions and are responsible for the consequences of those decisions. Therefore, the MSPB suggests that OPM begin developing an oversight approach that focuses on the line manager.

Again, the rhetoric sounds good, but it is impractical. How will OPM measure the human resources performance of line managers? By the number of awards they give or don't give? It's ludicrous.

Another distressing MSPB finding deals with agency awareness of OPM efforts. Although OPM this year has worked with agencies to develop self-assessment capabilities and has provided the results of this work as a model for other agencies, the MSPB found that these efforts were virtually unknown among agency officials outside the Washington, D.C., area. Even OPM's own oversight staff in the field was not well-attuned to what the agency's headquarters staff had accomplished with regard to agency self-assessment efforts, the board said.

The MSPB report continues in the same vein and offers a number of recommendations. But the recommendation that is missing is the one that would seek to abolish the MSO&E unit.

-- Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who contributes regularly to Federal Computer Week.

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