US government personnel chief sets out progress on reform after Office of Personnel Management’s ‘disruptive history’

By on 27/06/2022 | Updated on 27/06/2022
A picture of OPM director Kiran Ahuja
Kiran Ahuja Photo: OPM

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) must work harder to turn itself into the US federal government’s strategic centre for human capital management, the agency’s director Kiran Ahuja recently said.

Speaking to reporters about OPM’s work in the last year, Ahuja said her purpose as director had been to communicate the value of federal workers and their importance to the proper functioning of government.

The OPM is key to a number of Biden administration priorities, which in the president’s management agenda include prioritising federal employee engagement, as well as a federal services reform plan.

Read more: US federal hiring guidance: ‘Focus on what candidates know how to do, not where they learned it’

In her comments, Ahuja said OPM had made headway by implementing initiatives under the Biden administration that seek to improve diversity, equity and inclusion across all agencies. Yet challenges for the agency remain, such as improving underfunded retirement services for which OPM has had to hire more staff as well as focus on customer service.

“We’ve got a number of staff coming in and are setting up a new cloud-based contact centre…And we’re trying to make small modernising changes such as, and this should not be novel, but scanning records and documents,” Ahuja said, as reported by Government Executive (GovExec).

Responding to the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA)’s 2021 report on how to reform the agency, Ahuja said OPM would also work to implement legislative proposals to modernise recruitment and the retention of federal workers.

A disruptive history

Ahuja commented that reforms within OPM had been frustrated in recent years by frequent leadership changes and controversies.

“Because OPM has had a fairly disruptive history, that’s taken attention away [from previous reform efforts],” she said.

Ahuja is the first permanent director of the Office of Personnel Management to stay in the job for at least a year since 2015, with the agency often being led by short-term interim acting appointments since. The agency came under fire before then in 2015, following a breach of data linked to federal employees and job candidates. The Trump administration also made serial attempts to diminish employment protections for policy-orientated federal staff. Last week, Ahuja became the first OPM director to have stayed in the job for a full year since 2018.

Ahuja said that she had chosen to follow the advice of ex-OPM director Linda Springer, who urged leaders not to try to fix problems in one go, but to roll out reforms piecemeal through a slower “iterative process”.

Ahuja also said OPM would respond to calls for the agency to end the practice of taking new candidates’ salary histories into consideration when hiring, as this could perpetuate race-based pay disparities.

Biden pledges to ‘address use of salary history’ in setting federal government pay rates

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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