Who is Kiran Ahuja, Biden’s pick for OPM?

By on 07/05/2021
Kiran Ahuja previously served as executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and chief of staff at OPM. Credit: Paul Chang, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If confirmed, Kiran Ahuja will become the first Indian-American to lead the Office of Personnel Management in the US. Josh Lowe reports on her career so far and what we can learn from her recent appearance before a senate committee

Good job interviews are usually wide-ranging, but not many veer from inquiring about your plans to upgrade the IT system, to asking whether you think you live in a racist country.

Then again, a US Senate confirmation hearing isn’t a normal job interview. A session last month, held by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, put Kiran Ahuja, US president Joe Biden’s nomination for director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), through her paces.

So who is the 49-year-old lawyer asked by Biden to oversee HR for his administration and its millions of federal employees? And what questions face her as she makes her way through the approval process?

Her route so far

If confirmed, Ahuja’s appointment to this senior role would be historic. Born in India — but a United States resident since she was two — she would be the first Indian-American to lead the OPM.

At her confirmation hearing, she paid tribute to her husband and parents. Her father was a psychiatrist, who served in a series of Southern rural hospitals and later ran a medical clinic for under-served communities in Savannah, Georgia.

Ahuja has also spent her career in public service. Previous roles include executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and chief of staff at OPM. Her original training was in law, and she began her career working for the Department of Justice. Her current position is chief executive of Philanthropy Northwest, a network that facilitates collaboration between philanthropic organisations.

Identity politics

At her hearing, Ahuja faced a series of forceful questions from Republican senators on identity politics. Having previously spoken out against the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds for abortion in certain cases, Ahuja was asked if she would obey the law in her position as director. She answered that we would.

Senator James Lankford asked Ahuja how she would manage the issue of whether the OPM-administered employee health insurance programme should include puberty blockers and sex re-assignment surgeries for children. Ahuja said she “would commit to better understanding the issue, getting a sense of what is happening inside the agency”.

And in perhaps the hearing’s most combative exchange, senator Josh Hawley pressed Ahuja over her views on racial issues, including on whether she thought the US was a “systematically racist nation” and her position on diversity training and so-called “critical race theory”.

On the former question, Ahuja said she would seek to ensure equal opportunity. And while she distanced herself from the specific training programme mentioned by Hawley, she gave a cautious defence of diversity training in general. She said such programmes could “encourage understanding” and create an “inclusive workforce” — both issues that young potential government employees care about.

OPM in the firing line

Ahuja was also asked about a cyber attack on the OPM in 2015, during her time as chief of staff. The data stolen during the incident — which, according to Wired, bore the hallmarks of hackers linked to the Chinese government — included millions of forms relating to security background checks and fingerprint records.

Ahuja was questioned about the leaks and how she’d improve cybersecurity. She committed to working with the committee on efforts to develop and retain cybersecurity professionals in the federal government. This included supporting a bill, backed by committee chair Gary Peters, that would create a “rotation programme” to enable cybersecurity professionals to work across multiple agencies.

Ahuja said that “IT modernisation” would be a “high priority” for her. When asked about improving retirement services for federal workers, Ahuja mentioned a recent boost for the IT Modernization Fund, which she said will be one factor in helping her make headway where predecessors have struggled.

Merit-based principles

During the Trump years, the OPM frequently found itself at the heart of debates about civil service independence and integrity. Notably, Trump’s administration proposed – and eventually abandoned – plans to merge­ the OPM with the General Services Administration (GSA), and tried to remove employment protection rights from officials working on policy issues. His administration argued that the reforms were necessary to remove poorly-performing civil servants, but many feared that the plans would permit elected leaders to pressurise or sack policy staff seen as insufficiently committed to their agenda.

At Ahuja’s hearing, Republican senator and committee ranking member Rob Portman cited statistics from last year’s workforce survey, published by OPM, that suggested federal employees are concerned about merit-based principles and performance. Similar concerns were raised in this year’s survey too: for example, just 42% of respondents agreed with the statement: “In my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve.”

“Oftentimes poor performance shows up because of a lack of employee engagement, or a mismatch of skills and talents for that position, or there just isn’t really clear metrics around the performance evaluation,” Ahuja said.

She stressed the importance of the OPM “supporting agencies around performance management guidance… [and] supporting managers around understanding those processes.”

Ahuja’s role still rests on a final confirmation vote on the senate floor, where any of these issues could provide significant points of contention. All Republican senators voted against her at the committee vote, citing her views on race and abortion, but she won 7-5 thanks to the Democrat majority.

At her hearing, Ahuja said: “I believe people are, and should be, at the centre of all policy decisions, and… I would carry forward this guiding principle while working in service to the American public.” It remains to be seen whether the Senate, in a time of division, accepts that Ahuja can be the unifier the US public service needs.

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