“A terrible idea, for so many reasons”: civil servants react to Trump’s reform plans

By on 13/07/2018
President Trump has set out plans to dismantle the Office of Personnel Management, which sets policy and runs services for the federal workforce. Image by Gage Skidmore

The US president has set out a series of organisational changes, including the break-up of the Office of Personnel Management – the federal HR policy and services agency. Tamar Wilner hears concerns over the creeping politicisation of America’s professional civil service

When reorganisation of the US government comes up for debate – as it does under most administrations – familiar anecdotes tend to crop up. One concerns an idiosyncratic division of labour: while cheese pizzas are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, oversight over pepperoni pizzas falls to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Steve Lenkart builds on the US government’s pizza peculiarities as he contemplates the civil service reforms and architecture of government changes proposed by the White House in June. “We call it the pizza plan, because essentially it’s moving toppings around on the same pizza… and agencies are the toppings,” says the executive director of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

But behind the jokes, Lenkart is one of many civil service champions who worry that the proposals could have very serious consequences. And he knows what he’s talking about: Lenkart spent four years as executive director of the Merit Systems Protection Board, the quasi-judicial agency that oversees workforce issues across government.

Steve Lenkart, executive director, National Federation of Federal Employees

KO for the OPM

Some of the proposals that concern unions and civil service commentators have received less media attention than the plans for departmental changes, such as merging the Departments of Education and Labor. For example, they’re worried about plans to dismantle the Office of Personnel Management (OPM): the agency that effectively acts as the human resources department for the US government. In its reorganisation plan, the White House proposes moving the OPM’s policy function into the Executive Office of the President – home to high-level executive functions such as the Office of Management and Budget and the National Security Council.

Under these proposals, much of what’s left at OPM – health insurance, day-to-day staffing functions, and possibly retirement services – would move to the General Services Administration, which would be renamed the Government Services Agency. And the OPM’s National Background Investigations Bureau would move to the Department of Defense.

The proposals have been condemned by most – if not quite all – of those who represent the interests of civil servants.

Policy shift

Above all, union leaders worry about the idea of moving the OPM’s policy function into the Executive Office of the President (EOP) – giving the White House closer control of issues such as recruitment and promotion.

“It’s a terrible idea, for so many reasons,” says Richard Loeb, senior policy counsel at the American Federation of Government Employees. “That would be the end, essentially, of the… notion of having an independent – or at least a semi-independent – office that is responsible for handling issues related to merit system principles.”

Richard Loeb, senior policy counsel, American Federation of Government Employees

Many senior civil service positions in the US are, of course, directly appointed by the president; but below those top levels, officials are selected and promoted on the basis of ability and performance rather than political patronage. And Loeb believes that moving control of this merit-based framework to the EOP – which, he says, is likely to mean placing it within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) – would threaten its core principles, leaving it stranded within an agency lacking both the culture and the knowledge to protect the merit system.

Politicisation

The proposals would build upon the weakening of civil service protections already underway, Loeb says. Congress has already passed legislation that allows the Department of Defense to hire some personnel without posting public notices or using the usual system of rating and ranking. And this year’s National Defense Authorization Act would expand these exemptions to certain functions at civilian agencies.

Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, agrees that the proposals take the government in the wrong direction. “If anything, we need to move even further away from a political workforce,” he says, noting that the president can currently make 4,000 political appointments (1,200 of which require Senate confirmation). Of the move to EOP, he says: “Even if it’s not a direct effort to influence politically, I think it creates appearance issues.”

Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service

On the other hand

But at least one representative of civil servants disagrees with the criticisms. Jason Briefel, executive director of the Senior Executives Association, says his organisation is “strongly supportive of the notion of elevating the human capital policy-setting function of OPM to the Executive Office of the President.”

Jason Briefel, executive director of the Senior Executives Association

He notes that major companies have, similarly, been moving their HR policy function into the top tier of executive governance; and points out that strategic human capital management has been on the Government Accountability Office’s list of programmes vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse or mismanagement since 2001. “It’s a known problem.”

Briefel also argues that since the OPM only covers the two-thirds of employees under Title 5 of the US code – the main set of laws spelling out government HR rules, such as hiring and job classifications – it doesn’t have the tools to comprehensively reform pay schedules in its current form.

Briefel says worries about politicisation are misplaced: the OPM director is already a presidential appointee confirmed by the Senate. And existing agencies that fall under the Executive Office of the President, such as the office of the chief information officer and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, are “widely seen to be expert, policy-driven organisations, even if they’re led by political appointees.”

Serious scepticism

Others are not convinced. “I was the deputy director of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, and I can tell you it was totally politicised,” Loeb says. That agency and other OMB offices – such as the Office of Federal Financial Management and the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs – “are completely political,” Loeb says.

And regarding pay structures, Loeb says the planned changes wouldn’t achieve Briefel’s goals: “The new office would have no more authorities than OPM has.” About a third of civil servants are classified as “excepted service” from the provisions of Title 5, with agencies allowed to set their own rules, he says; but that doesn’t have anything to do with pay. And many of these staff are in the same pay system as the competitive service employees for which OPM has merit system responsibility.

Lenkart has another criticism of the proposed move. “Everything that OPM looks at is from an HR perspective, across government. OMB’s bottom line is money, and they need to produce a responsible budget and be careful with money,” he says. “If you don’t have a stand-alone agency that is focused on HR and can at least negotiate with OMB what’s important… that HR message will get lost.”

‘Lost in the larger mission’

Most of those we interviewed also came down hard on the proposal to move the OPM’s service delivery functions to the General Services Administration (GSA): the agency for the federal government’s real estate, purchasing and fleet, among other operations.

“It strikes me as uncommonly short-sighted,” Loeb says, arguing that the GSA doesn’t have the requisite experience to handle functions like retirement. While such a function could be moved wholesale from OPM to GSA, he says, “It would go to an agency that does not have the history, or possibly even care all that much about what they’re doing in retirement processing.”

Plus, Loeb asks: “Whoever heard of a major organization with no personnel office? Basically, you’re just taking all this accumulated experience and either jettisoning it; or, even if you were to transfer everybody over to GSA, it sends a message: ‘These [services] are not that important’.”

Lenkart agrees. “Under OPM, they will watch for how effectively those HR functions are being administered,” he says. “Whereas in GSA, it’s going to get lost in the larger mission.”

HR for the HR dept

Moving functions from one agency to another always has consequences for staff, Stier warns; OPM employs about 5000. “It actually creates a lot of turmoil. If you’re in OPM right now, you’re wondering if you have a continued job, wondering where that job might be and what it looks like.”

What’s more, Stier warns, as the plans were being developed “the workforce were never engaged in that conversation – that’s not good.” The National Treasury Employees Union and the American Federation of Government Employees have both complained that federal staff and their unions were not properly consulted on the reorganisation.

In a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, OMB deputy director for management Margaret Weichert admitted that the administration did not seek out union comment before publishing its plan. She said the decision was taken to avoid “entrenched interests” derailing the reorganization.

Trouble with background checks

Only one OPM-related proposal wins broader support among our interviewees: the plan to move the National Background Investigations Bureau to the Department of Defense (DOD).

Security clearances have a troubled history: a hack into OPM files, revealed in 2015, compromised the forms used for background investigations and led to the resignation of the OPM director as the chief information officer. Security clearances are labelled a “high risk” area of operations by the Government Accountability Office, which found that OPM’s backlog of clearance cases grew from 190,000 in August 2014 to more than 709,000 in September 2017 – with no plan for reducing the pileup.

Last December, President Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, which gave the DOD responsibility for conducting certain DOD staff background checks currently handled by OPM. Because of this, Stier says, the proposal to move all background investigations to DOD “clearly makes sense.” Leaving things as the act prescribes, DOD would oversee 70% of  clearances and the OPM would oversee the rest, Stier says. That arrangement “doesn’t deal with underlying problems, and creates an additional one by fragmenting what was already together,” he says.

Lenkart is more skeptical. “DOD has enough to worry about,” he says. “I’m always hesitant to move something for the sake of moving it. There has to be a good reason to do that, and I have yet to see the reason that would justify that move.”

An uncertain trajectory

It’s hard to predict how many of these proposals will be enacted, with a number of moving parts in play. Reorganisations are always difficult to pull off, says Chris Lu – a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center who served as White House cabinet secretary and deputy secretary of labor under President Obama. The White House says the proposed reforms to OPM may require both administrative actions and legislative changes – and for the most part, the prospects of legislation look dim.

In an election year, Congress has fewer days in session. And legislators are often reluctant to make organisational changes like those proposed for the USDA or Health and Human Services – not least because they like sitting on the scrutiny committees that mirror agency structures, and overhauling the architecture of government disrupts those committees. Departmental changes could also affect the programmes that benefit key outside stakeholders, says Lu.

However, a bill recently introduced in Congress would increase the president’s authority to initiate agency reorganisations – although lawmakers would still have to give their approval. “I don’t see there being any great desire on the Hill to get into bill writing to [reorganize agencies directly],” Loeb says. “On the other hand, it’s possible that there will be enough support that they would give the administration broad authority in some of these areas to do it.”

Cock-up or conspiracy?

Still, the pathways forward are unclear. Weichert told the Oversight Committee hearing that her office would work with government agencies this summer to determine which reorganisation proposals would require legislation, and which could be accomplished administratively.

Some representatives of the civil service say they’re wary about what they see as ad hoc thinking. “It is getting the cart before the horse to be thinking about restructuring OPM before doing a broader modernisation of the civil service system itself,” says Stier, who argues that reforms are needed on everything from hiring to pay, management to firing.

But Lenkart says the proposals around OPM seem to be part of a bigger, more disturbing picture – and warns of threats to the USA’s professional, merit-based civil service. “Absolutely everything you see out of this administration,” he says, is intended “to take away those systematic protections that prevent politicisation of the executive branch.”

About Tamar Wilner

Tamar Wilner is a Dallas-based journalist and researcher who writes about public policy and the media. She's written extensively on energy, the environment, urban planning and small business for trade publications in the US and UK, and contributes regularly to the Columbia Journalism Review. Find her at @tamarwilner.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*