US federal workforce HR chief quits after six months

By on 18/03/2020
Cabaniss is the second consecutive OPM director to quit less than a year after taking up the role. (Photo by Another Believer via Wikimedia Commons).

The director of the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Dale Cabaniss, resigned unexpectedly on Tuesday evening just six months after taking up the role.

It is understood her decision to quit, effective immediately, is a result of frustration at interference from the White House. Her predecessor Jeff Pon resigned after seven months.    

According to Politico, which broke the story, two people familiar with the matter said Cabaniss had been treated poorly by John McEntee, the recently-appointed 29-year-old head of the Presidential Personnel Office (PPO), and Paul Dans, OPM’s White House liaison.  

“If these reports are true, then the Trump administration’s mismanagement and political appointees have once again brought chaos to the federal workforce,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, chairman of the House Government Operations subcommittee, said in a statement, as reported by The Hill.

“At the very moment we need OPM to operate smoothly and efficiently, including expanding telework for all eligible workers and contractors, we are instead faced with uncertainty that threatens to paralyse this agency,” he added.

Crucial government role

President Trump announced that he intended to nominate Cabaniss, a former Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) chair, to lead the OPM – the government’s central HR office – in March last year. Her appointment was confirmed by the Senate and she started at the agency in September. Her tenure was meant to last four years.  

At the time of her nomination, five major federal sector executive and management professional associations comprising the Government Managers Coalition (GMC) wrote a letter in support of the nomination. They said her experience, which also includes stints on the Senate’s Committee on Governmental Affairs and Committee on Appropriations, promised “a broad and relevant skill-set ideal for filling this crucial government role”. They noted that the OPM had “lacked consistent Senate-confirmed leadership over the last several years” and said that operating without a clearly established direction by Senate-confirmed leadership “should not become the standard state of affairs for any agency, particularly for such an integral component for managing the federal workforce”.

Trumps’ first nominee for the role, George Nesterczuk, pulled out in August 2017 after fierce opposition to his nomination from civil service unions. Kathleen McGettigan continued as acting director until the appointment of Jeff Pon in March 2018. However, Pon resigned after just seven months in the role – prompting speculation that he’d been seen as inadequately committed to the president’s civil service HR reforms, which include making it easier to fire officials and breaking up the central HR function. Cabaniss had been instrumental in pushing ahead with these reforms.

Coronavirus response criticism

The news of Cabaniss’s departure comes as agencies scramble to protect the federal workforce from the coronavirus outbreak. The OPM has issued guidance recommending that agencies sign up “as many employees as possible” for telework. Meanwhile, a memo sent by the Office of Management and Budget says that “maximum telework flexibilities” should be offered to all eligible employees in Washington D.C. – but outside the capital should only apply to those who are at greater risk of complications from the coronavirus, COVID-19. The administration has been heavily criticised for failing to provide clear guidance.

OPM deputy director, Michael Rigas, will lead the department as acting director, a spokesperson confirmed in a statement. 

A controversial figure

PPO director John McEntee, who is thought to have been a factor in Cabaniss’s decision to stand down, is a former Trump campaign staffer who has been criticised by officials for what they see as an effort to stock the administration with his friends, including at least three college seniors, according to Politico. Last month, he reportedly asked White House aides to identify officials who might be anti-Trump. This is understood to be part of wider plan to rid the government of employees seen to be disloyal to the president. White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley told Fox News the administration sought to expel federal employees who are “actively working against” Trump. A watchdog filed a complaint to an independent oversight agency alleging that Gidley broke the law – specifically violating three provisions of Title Five of the US Code, established to maintain a non-partisan civil service – by making such comments.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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