How Much Official Time Used by Federal Unions? No One Really Knows

GAO analyzed a recent OPM report on official time usage by federal employee unions. It found significant discrepancies in the data but OPM noted that providing more accurate data “is not a priority at this time.”

How much time and money is spent by the federal government on official time for union representatives? According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in a recent report, in fiscal year 2012, the number of hours spent on federal employees representing unions (“official time”) is up to 3,439,499 at a cost of $157,196,468 for salaries and benefits as calculated by OPM. The number of hours used increased by 545,527 since 2009. (See $157,196,468 Spent on Union Salaries in FY 2012)

While the OPM report sounded definitive, some in Congress wanted to know if the figures were accurate. GAO has now issued its findings. The result: No one really knows how much time and money is spent on this benefit for federal employee unions and OPM is not too concerned anyway. The GAO report implies the actual cost was significantly higher than reported.

GAO checked a sample of data from the OPM report. There was a significant difference. According to GAO, their cost estimate for the 6 agencies checked “yielded an estimate that was about $5 million more than the estimate using OPM’s methodology ($61 million versus $56 million, or a difference of about 9 percent). Further, cost estimates using GAO’s methodology at 4 of the 6 agencies were higher by 15 percent or more than the estimates using OPM’s methodology.”

As is usually the case, the agency in focus in the GAO report had an opportunity to provide comments on the findings. According to GAO, “OPM said reporting on official time is not a priority at this time and they have used the same methodology for preparing its cost estimate since fiscal year 2002. Use of other methodologies may result in a more representative estimate of actual cost.”

GAO recommended that OPM consider other approaches to developing its cost estimates. It also recommended that OPM work with agencies to improve their data collection and reporting. OPM partially concurred with the recommendations but raised questions about implementation costs and limits to its authority.

In short, the official time data is probably inaccurate. Providing accurate data “is not a priority” for OPM so it is not likely to become more accurate in the future.

In a press release, Congressman Phil Gingrey (R-GA) stated: “GAO’s report confirms that more work needs to be done to ensure transparency and accountability when reporting official time. As long as taxpayers are forced to subsidize union activity, they should—at the minimum—have access to reliable data that shows where their hard-earned money is being spent. It is past time for the federal government to make American families—not Big Labor—its priority.”

The lack of accuracy in the official time report is not a surprise nor is the lack of interest by OPM in providing more accurate data. In an article published in 2011, labor relations expert Robert Gilson wrote: “It’s always fun to read the wording attached to a government document that suggests the information provided is probably inaccurate.  Also fun is the language used by the Agency publishing the report of that information claiming it has no responsibility for its accuracy.  OPM is an apparent master of this…” (See OPM Releases Hilarious Union Official Time Report)

In summary, the official time data is inaccurate but not likely to improve in the near future as it is “not a priority.” Perhaps to be more succinct,  OPM could have expressed its attitude to GAO as the official time figures are “Good enough for government work.”

GAO Analysis of OPM’s Official Time Figures

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