More HR Changes in Government: Twilight Time for OPM?

The early 20th century structure of the federal government is changing rapidly. Will OPM eventually disappear as a separate agency?

The government’s human resources system is obviously changing rapidly as the push is on to have widespread pay for performance in federal agencies and weaker federal employee unions.

But you may not have focused on another big change that is coming. In order to consolidate the human resources function for the federal government, five agencies are bidding to provide administrative personnel functions for Uncle Sam.

The Office of Personnel Management estimates that using this approach will save the government about $1 billion over a 10 year stretch.

The gradual transition to this type of system has been going on for a decade or more. It wasn’t that long ago that a federal agency of any size had its own personnel office with branches in every regional city or on any sizable military base. These began disappearing a few years ago as computers began having an impact and agencies could save money by eliminating many of the smaller offices. And, as the smaller offices with more personalized service began to disappear, the terms “personnel office” were replaced by “human resources office” and employees (at least in government reports) became “human capital.”

So, while we may not have realized it at the time, the sprawling bureaucracy of federal personnel specialists that would have been recognized by your grandfather from his time in government began to change and resemble a more modern corporation.

The trend of even more consolidation of personnel services should not be a surprise. It isn’t all bad as employees will have more access to their own files, 24 hours a day, and from home as well as at the office.

No longer do job applicants have to go around to every personnel office in government to find federal job openings and with e-OPF’s instead of the old brown folders carrying your career history, most of the history will soon be stored in a large computer database with the contents easily accessed by a new employing agency.

It may surprise some readers to know that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) will not be providing the centralized services. According to a report in the Federal Times, OPM has given its approval to five agencies who may wind up providing these services.

And along with all of these changes, one has to wonder about the future of OPM as well. The Bush administration is taking a more businesslike approach to government management and the emerging of several very large human resource offices in government may be another step toward making OPM’s traditional functions increasingly obsolete. No doubt the personnel policies of the government will be influenced heavily by these agencies as they take on a larger role for more of the federal government.

It may be a coincidence that the next person in line to become OPM director was recently employed at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Linda Springer was controller and head of the Office of Federal Financial Management in the Office of Management and Budget.

Her selection for the job makes sense. The administration is looking closely at personnel costs and certainly wants pay for performance to succeed and the strong financial background she will bring to the job is likely to be very helpful in implementing changes in these areas. With several other agencies providing more human resource services in a streamlined federal government, and with the close relationship between agency budgets and performance appraisal, a logical step that would be taken by many corporations would be to fold OPM into OMB to have direct control and coordination of budgets and human resources.

Most of OPM’s budget goes toward administering the federal retirement system. But the part of the agency that generates the most publicity, the most political interest and has the most impact on the structure of government are the policy-making functions of the agency.

At a minimum, look for increasing coordination between OPM and OMB. As personnel offices disappear throughout government, it would not be a shock to see OPM disappear as a separate agency as the administration seeks a more efficient and more tightly managed structure for the federal government.

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