Better Government, Yes – Politicization of the Civil Service, No

As you have no doubt read at FEDManager.com, it has been a busy time at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in recent months. OPM has been led by Acting Director Margaret Weichert – who also serves as the Deputy Director for Management at the Office of Management and Budget – since October 2018. President Trump nominated Dale Cabaniss as director of OPM in March 2019, and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee favorably reported out her nomination in May. The full Senate has not yet acted on her nomination. FMA and our colleagues within the Government Managers Coalition offered support for her confirmation, noting the agency has only had a Senate-confirmed director for eight months out of the last four years.

In the meantime, as part of the President’s Management Agenda, the Administration recently proposed legislative language to Congress that would essentially dissolve OPM, with the various functions being absorbed by the General Services Administration, the Executive Office of the President, and the Department of Defense. This led to a hearing in the House Government Operations Subcommittee in May 2019, to evaluate the proposed reorganization. FMA called on Congress to “conduct constructive, bipartisan oversight” of the Administration’s agency reorganization plans in its 2019 issue briefs.

Acting Director Weichert fielded questions from both Democrats and Republicans on the subcommittee, who were largely skeptical about the proposal. That bipartisan skepticism was echoed by the Government Accountability Office, OPM’s Inspector General, and former OPM Director Linda Springer. FMA was heartened by the concern expressed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as well as independent observers. Much of the discussion centered on the Administration’s legal authority – or lack thereof, a lack of transparency about other alternatives, and a lack of a cost-benefit analysis. OPM’s struggling IT systems were also frequently cited, as was the data breach announced in the summer of 2015.

In a letter to the Government Operations subcommittee prior to the hearing, FMA expressed concerns about the proposal, specifically related to politicizing human relations, and the ramifications of eroding merit-based protections. FMA National President Renee Johnson noted change can be good, and offered that “components of the proposal have merit toward making government function more efficiently and effectively.” Having said that, Johnson stated, “FMA’s concerns with removing OPM’s status as an independent establishment outweigh the potential benefits.”

Johnson elaborated on FMA’s concerns regarding the loss of OPM’s independent establishment status in the same letter to lawmakers. She wrote, “Regrettably, the fact that the proposal politicizes human resources functions within the federal government, makes everything else unacceptable. Dating back to the early 1880s, the nation has strived to eschew the ‘spoils system,’ in favor of a politically impartial, merit-based federal civil service. The career civil service is expected – and required by law – to work without regard to their own political affiliations or leanings. They work solely based on their technical merit and prowess, unaffected by which political party is in the White House. This is why OPM was created as an independent establishment in the civil service reform act of 1978. Rolling these functions into GSA, which functions ‘subject to the direction and control of the President,’ creates a serious and intolerable conflict. FMA argues transferring these roles into the GSA would negatively impact the non-partisan standing of the career civil service, and most importantly, threatens the output of services to the American people.”

FMA will support agency reorganization to improve efficiency and effectiveness across the government when it is supported by a cost-benefit analysis, is the best choice among several alternatives, and ensures continuation and strengthening of a merit-based system. Those are, and will always be, the core principles by which FMA and our members will weigh any change to the government, including the Office of Personnel Management.

Posted in Hear it from FMA

Tags: Federal Managers Association, FMA

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