Plans to break up US federal HR agency abandoned

By on 02/11/2020
White House proposals to dismantle OPM were strongly opposed by federal employee unions and Congress blocked the move at the end of last year. Credit: Skeeze/Pixabay

The Trump administration’s plan to merge the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) with the General Services Administration (GSA), giving the White House much greater control of federal HR policies, has been dropped.

The acting OPM director, Michael Rigas, told staff in an email on Thursday last week that “as Congress has not acted on the administration’s legislative proposal, we are no longer devoting time and energy to the merger, and are focused on ensuring OPM can function as a standalone personnel agency for the federal government,” Federal News Network reported.

Rigas went on to say they are “conducting an independent analysis of the agency to help inform how OPM can best carry out its mission and meet the needs of the American people”.

Civil service union the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) welcomed the Trump administration’s apparent decision to abandon its effort to abolish OPM. It is a “victory” for federal employees, as well as the American public, it said.

“The proposal was a clear attempt to politicise the civil service by abolishing the agency that ensures federal employees are hired and fired, promoted, and demoted based on skill and merit, not on political loyalty tests,” AFGE national president Everett Kelley said in a statement.

Fraught timeline

The proposals to break up the federal government’s HR agency were first floated by the White House in the summer of 2018. A report by the Trump administration set out plans to transfer many of OPM’s functions – including human resources, IT and the healthcare and insurance divisions – to the GSA. The move was roundly condemned by unions as an attempt to politicise the civil service.

In May 2019, then-acting OPM head Margaret Weichert formally set out plans to merge most of OPM with GSA. Under the proposals, the policy function – which sets federal personnel policy for 2.1 million employees – would have been handed to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

But in December last year, Congress passed legislation prohibiting the administration from moving forward with the plan. It ordered the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to conduct a year-long study of OPM’s functions, any challenges it faces and how those might be overcome.

Despite this, the White House continued to push ahead with the merger. At the end of last year the OPM inspector general reported that OPM “continues to explore ways to merge functions with GSA”.

Winning a battle, not the war

Kelley warned that while the AFGE is “relieved that the administration has abandoned this dangerous plan, they are still proceeding with other proposals that endanger the apolitical civil service and strip away the rights of federal employees.”

This month President Trump issued an executive order that could remove employment protection rights for many federal workers, allowing those involved in policymaking to be disciplined or fired more easily.

This latest move has attracted widespread condemnation and prompted the resignation of Federal Salary Council chair Ron Sanders. Last week The National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), which represents about 150,000 employees at 33 federal agencies and departments, filed a lawsuit challenging the executive order on the grounds that it is unlawful and would politicise the civil service.

NTEU National President Tony Reardon said Trump is “is attempting to run roughshod over the separation of powers and rewrite the law himself in a way that threatens a critical pillar of our democracy” and that the union would “stand up” to him.

“As with previous Trump executive orders and our legal challenges to them, we intend to remind this administration that the taxpayers are better served by federal employees who swear an oath to the Constitution, not a president,” Reardon said.  

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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