An Open Letter to OPM Director Nominee Katherine Archuleta

The author offers his suggestions for Katherine Archuleta, the president’s nominee for OPM Director, and invites users to share their suggestions as well.

This letter is from me and readers who post comments to it.  This open letter contains ideas and recommendations from the nerve endings of government.  (No doubt, some of the chronic commentators will add their cynical/inane remarks as well.  Please do your best to ignore them.)  Those who want to skip the author’s thoughts can go directly to the comments section by clicking here.  Consider forwarding this article link to those Feds you know who might be interested.

Dear Ms. Archuleta:

I begin this letter with congratulations on your presumptive nomination to direct the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).  I hope you will be hard at work there soon.  Your resume shows much experience in politics, I also learned that you have worked in the executive offices of two Federal departments and you’ve seen the civil service at work.  That’s a great combination for an OPM Director to have.

Before I open this posting to readers for their wisdom, experience and advice, I should introduce myself.  I’m a civil service dropout.  My Federal career ended after 13 years.  My reasons for leaving are unusual:  I didn’t want the jobs ahead of me and did not want to remain for 17 years in the one I occupied.  I was a GS-12 Labor Relations Specialist when I resigned my job.  I really enjoyed my short Federal tenure.

In 1988, heading toward an uncertain horizon, I was hired to teach labor and employee relations seminars for a fledgling partnership of two other Federal dropouts.  One of that team is Ralph Smith, the founder of this website.  Ralph and his business partner, the late Dennis Reischl, moved into other ventures and I left their growing business to become a self-employed trainer.  I have been teaching classes relating to union/management relations, performance evaluations, and correcting conduct/performance issues for 25 years and Federal agencies are my only clients.

I want this letter to serve two purposes: 1) To voice my own hopes for your tenure; and 2) Invite the thousands of current and former Feds who frequent this website to consider voicing their wishes relating to Federal HR.  I’ll go first, with the understanding that my perspective is limited.  Here are 3 suggestions.

1.  Leadership in the career civil service is a mess.  Studies from OPM, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and outside entities all indicate serious shortcomings among Federal supervisors and managers.  New supervisors commonly arrive on the job with no management training, mentoring, or other development options.  They serve a 1-year probationary period (during which they can be returned to their former job level) but this option is rarely exercised (your staff should have the numbers) and most become “lifers” – for better or worse.  Across the government there is no systematic review process during that crucial year.

OPM could create a simple and sensible curriculum for the development of new supervisors.  You might also consider creating models for pre-supervisory development.  I respect the merit system and disdain the cronyism that leads to “pre-selection” of less-qualified-but-better-connected candidates.  Such concerns, however, must be balanced against the problems associated with leaders who walk into the job have never studied management or read a book on the subject.

An OPM recommended/required syllabus of online and printed materials is desperately needed.  Quarterly exam materials might be called for as well.  Federal employees numbering in the tens of thousands are waiting for a more professional supervisory corps.  Supervisors should be versed in basic management concepts such as TQM, MBO, and LEAN.  Feds across government may be gratified for generations if you take this on.

2.  The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA) changed the landscape of personnel management in the Federal sector and created the Office of Personnel Management that you are likely to lead.  President Carter and others who helped fashion the Act believed it would be easier to separate poor performers and respond to misconduct.  The evidence over decades is that has not happened.

The sad fact is, it takes months of tedium and unconscionable costs to rid the government of a single employee whose performance and/or conduct would be unacceptable to any sane employer.  I believe in due process and employee protections, however, HR specialists and the managers they serve now live in fear of the process.  Much of it has been handed over to attorneys who shy from likely litigation before the MSPB or EEOC.  Under your leadership there could be a review of law, regulation and guidance that might lead to long-needed changes.

Performance appraisal procedures are 35 years old… and disciplinary ones date back to the mid-20th century.  Consider inviting subject matter experts like Peter Broida and William Wiley into such a review.  Their expertise (and that of others who now work outside government and apart from “Beltway Bandits”) may be of great value to you.  If your task force has recommendations pointing the way toward statutory amendments, you may find both political parties agreeable to pragmatic changes.

3.  Lastly, don’t make an attempt to change the Federal compensation system.  That same CSRA of 1978 attempted to do so with “Merit Pay” for managers at the GS-13 through GS-15 levels.  It failed.  Donald Rumsfeld tried it with his National Security Personnel System (NSPS) last decade.  It failed too.  With less access to meaningful raises for civil servants (sad but true), this pursuit is a dead end

You will hear from advisors and consultants about successful pay-for-performance (pfp) experiments in government the many reasons other attempts failed.  You will inherit a test project with the acronym GEAR (Goals Engagement Accountability Results).  There is much to be learned by the pilots underway at a few agencies, however, most of these lessons will relate to improving supervision/management which is all to the good.

Widespread success of a pfp system in the Executive Branch is extremely unlikely.  “Pay banding” better fits the private sector.  There, money is the motivator and unions are scarce.  Federal employees are commonly motivated less by money than by security, career, and service to country.  We’re not all that different from our colleagues who serve in uniforms.  With no moves to inject pfp for them, consider the case closed.

My best wishes—

Robbie Kunreuther

Your Turn!

That’s my 3 cents.  Now those who have ideas, cautions, recommendations, etc. can weigh in.  What should Ms, Archuleta know as she assesses her new job?  The instructions for leaving a comment can be found below this article.  …and feel free to forward this piece to those you know who have knowledge of Federal HR.

About the Author

Robbie Kunreuther is the Director of Government Personnel Services (GPS). GPS provides 1 to 3-day seminars to Federal agencies in four subject areas: Dealing with performance and conduct issues; Developing sensible performance appraisal criteria; Fostering cooperative labor-management relations; and Applying mediation skills in the workplace. Over the years, Robbie has trained thousands of Federal supervisors, managers, HR specialists, and union officials. For more information about him and GPS, go to