Can OPM retain its independence?

As the Trump Administration looks to split OPM between the White House and the General Services Administration, longtime human resources experts hope the HR shop can retain some autonomy.

By Mark Van Scyoc Royalty-free stock photo ID: 285175268
 

As the Trump Administration looks to split the Office of Personnel Management’s functions between the White House and the General Services Administration, longtime human resources experts hope the HR shop can retain some independence.

Don Kettl, professor and academic director of the University of Texas's LBJ Washington Center, said many human resources problems are "self-inflicted." The government is slow to adapt to modern personnel management practices, and waiting for Congress to act is proving frustrating.

"We're not in the mood to wait for a major omnibus set of legislative reforms that have to be passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president, because, best we can tell, that's not likely to happen soon," Kettl said at the National Academy of Public Administration’s Fall Summit November 1.

Doris Hausser, a senior advisor for civil service reform at OPM, said "a lot about human capital management doesn’t require a law."

While she acknowledged she "doesn't know what the reorganization is going to look like," Hausser said “little needs to be centralized" outside of the health benefits program, life insurance program and the retirement system, for example.

"There's not a clear mental model of what that means," she said. "One thing I would say is that over the years as I've been at OPM, there’s been a long-term tension between 'are we a central management agency that's part of the administration,' or are we just there to protect civil servants? And it’s a balancing act."

Hausser noted that since the Office of Management and Budget "has taken a more direct role in management policy… the idea of integrating that makes quite a bit of sense."

OPM is currently led by an OMB official – Deputy Director of Management Margaret Weichert. Under her leadership, OPM has expanded direct hiring authority and changed special occupational pay and classification. Weichert replaced Jeff Pon in October; Pon was said to be slow-walking White House plans for reorganizing the agency. Those plans include moving some back-office functions to the GSA and adding a human resources policymaking office to the White House.

Even though Weichert is currently leading OPM on an acting basis, there do not appear to be plans to replace her anytime soon. If she does end up dual-hatting both roles long term, Kettl said, that "becomes a quasi-reorganization" as Congress decides whether or not to approve structural changes.

Kettl said shifting human resources functions to GSA was “problematic," though she noted, " it's not clear whether it's going to happen or not."

Hausser added there are some definitional issues relating to the GSA-OPM merger, too.

"There are some places where there's a little bit of a fuzzy line between policy and transaction, and that's all yet to be worked out," she said. "I'm very curious to see how that's going to work."

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