Workforce

'Burrowing in' oversight needs improvement

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Federal agencies are confused by Office of Personnel Management's policy requiring them to seek approval on moving political appointees to career positions, and OPM does not identify all such transitions, according to a Sept. 30 Government Accountability Office report.

OPM and Capitol Hill watchdogs have sought ways to identify and root out political appointees who convert to career positions for which they might not be qualified -- a practice informally known as "burrowing in."

Since 2010, OPM has required all agencies to seek approval before moving a political appointee into a career post, but the effectiveness of the policy had not previously been evaluated.

GAO auditors found that 69 people at 28 agencies had moved from political to career positions from Jan. 1, 2010, to Oct. 1, 2015, with six agencies accounting for 34 of the cases.

Seventeen of the conversions came without agencies first seeking mandatory OPM approval, and six of the 17 went unidentified by OPM. According to the report, agency officials cited "difficulties understanding OPM's policy...as a reason for not seeking prior approval."

Agencies also noted that they are taking steps to identify potential burrowers, such as training human resources specialists on the policy and sending reminder notices to staff.

Furthermore, five agencies said they are adding questions to job announcements so that applicants must disclose whether they have served as political appointees in the previous five years.

The Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2015 requires OMB to report information on converted political appointees at least once a year to Congress. However, auditors found that OPM's oversight efforts do not capture all conversions, nor does OPM currently seek verification from agencies that its data is correct.

OPM officials said they are taking steps to improve the process for monitoring potential burrowers and plan to begin testing a prototype system as early as December that can better identify converted political appointees.

GAO recommended that OPM work with agencies to verify information on conversions. OPM officials said they agreed with the intent of the recommendation but believe their verification process is effective.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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