GAO to OPM: Give Agencies More Flexibility in Human Resources

GAO looks at the role played by the Office of Personnel Management in changing the human resources structure in the Federal government.

There have been many changes in government in the past decade. While we no longer refer to the “reinventing government” term popularized by Vice-President Al Gore and his team of acolytes, there is little doubt that the idea has taken hold and is still spreading through the bureaucracy.

While there is no definitive count, it seems like most, if not all, Federal agencies would like to get away from the common personnel management structure used by the Federal government for the past several decades.

Most readers are aware of the successful attempt to remove the Department of Homeland Security from some of these restrictions. The Department of Defense is taking advantage of the popularity it now has as a result of the quick war in Iraq to try and get away from the restrictions placed on managing various aspects of its civilian personnel. It has a chance of getting through Congress changes to the Federal bureaucracy that would have been thought to be impossible in years past.

Other agencies apparently see the current situation as a unique time to get out from under government wide rules and regulations and are steering through the wake created by DHS and DOD to also try and get away from traditional human resources requirements.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is often thought of as the Federal government’s central personnel office. At one time, many personnel specialists viewed working in an OPM policy office as the epitome of a human resources career. OPM ultimately controlled the human resources practices of the Federal government. The “best and brightest” human resources specialists were needed at OPM to provide government-wide policy. Undoubtedly, many career personnel specialists still view OPM with the same reverence. But times and political philosophy change and GAO does not hold the same reverence for OPM’s role.

There is little doubt the groundswell of demand for change in the Federal government’s human resources program has already changed OPM and that the agency will continue to change. Ultimately, Congress and the administration may even wonder whether the agency’s role could be better performed as a division within the Office of Management and Budget.

For the time being, the General Accounting Office (GAO) has issued a report that looks at the role played by OPM in helping agencies. GAO says that OPM has a leadership role in “identifying, developing, applying, and overseeing human capital flexibilities across the federal government.”

Stated differently, GAO is saying that one of the roles played by OPM is to help agencies get around the restrictions placed on agencies by Congress, OPM and other regulators over the past few decades, sometimes by interpreting regulations in a more “flexible” way or looking at requirements in a way that does not always lead to the same conclusion.

To give readers a feeling for the underlying philosophy in the new GAO report, consider this statement by GAO: “OPM also needs to more vigorously identify new flexibilities that would help agencies better manage their human capital and then work to build consensus for the legislative action needed.”

In short, we are not in an era of making one government work together in the same way. There is a job to be done. How can we move these requirements and regulations around to better accomplish that goal. OPM, according to the GAO report, should be less of a regulator and more of a mentor to agencies in helping them by placing fewer restrictions on agencies.

Personnel directors told GAO: “OPM needs to look at personnel reforms in a new, open, and objective way and develop changes to current laws and regulations to ensure that agencies can effectively obtain and manage their workforces.”

And, as a possible prelude to further changes in the role of OPM in guiding and directing personnel management in the Federal government, “some directors expressed frustration about the lack of coordination between OPM and OMB in responding to OMB’s request for agencies to complete workforce planning and restructuring analyses.”

In this report, GAO makes several recommendations on what it thinks OPM should do now:

Review existing OPM regulations and guidance to determine whether they provide agencies with flexibility and protection for employees.

Work with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council to use human capital flexibilities and provide a clearinghouse in distributing information about flexibilities to help agencies meet their human capital management needs.

Identify additional personnel flexibilities to manage the federal workforce and then develop and build consensus for needed legislation.

You can download the entire GAO report on the left hand side of the page.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47