Dismantling OPM and Changing the Face of the Federal HR Program

The dismantling of OPM is starting with a new executive order transferring much of the OPM work to the Department of Defense.

A president who wants to get rid of a federal agency has to be ambitious. Eliminating a federal agency is next to impossible. Every agency has a constituency. Getting Congressional approval to eliminate an agency borders on being an incomprehensible, unthinkable act. The political considerations and arguments are endless. Thoughts about whether an agency are successful or failing or if the agency has a valid reason for existence are lost amidst the political considerations.

It is comparatively easy to start a new agency. Money will flow into the agency and out-stretched hands and political support are quickly on display from those that stand to gain. More federal jobs will ensure support of the unions. True believers in the mission of the agency will line up. Congressmen will vie for money to flow into their districts in return for their vote supporting the new agency.

But, how hard is it to eliminate a federal agency? It has not happened since the end of World War II.

For those deficient in history or sat through a more recent history class in which World War II was not mentioned since it may not be as important as other issues closer to the hearts of more recent generations, the war ended in 1945.

Deleting the WPA from Government

The Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal agency that carried out public works projects, was dissolved in 1943.

The WPA was created by executive order in 1935 and employed millions at one time. Presumably, most able-bodied men at WPA went to work work in a military uniform so the millions left the WPA. The military pay was minimal and there was a possibility of getting shot or captured by an enemy force, but many Americans went to Europe or parts of Asia for the first time (perhaps seeing the sights from inside a tank, a Navy ship or a military airplane dropping bombs) in the 1940’s.

Congress abolished the Community Services Administration in 1981 but did not eliminate the function—the job was given to HHS.

Will OPM Be Deleted as Well?

President Trump wants to eliminate the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Moving some of OPM’s functions to another organization will require action by Congress.

But, not all of the functions have legislative protection. The Trump administration is moving out on its desire to eliminate the agency.

A new executive order will transfer conducting background investigations from OPM to the Department of Defense. OPM did these investigations at one time.

In the mid-1990’s, OPM decided to create a new company and give it the job of all those investigations. According to OPM director Jim King, the company had “every prospect for success” and “should save the taxpayers $25 million in five years.” 

As with many promises based on political goals rather than rational economic decisions, the new company failed and did not save taxpayers $25 million. Instead, the move resulted in accusations of fraud, cost hundreds of millions of dollars and eventually the work moved back into the warm embrace of OPM.

Moving Background Investigations to DoD

President Trump has issued an executive order moving the function of background investigations to the Department of Defense (DoD). The function has bounced around in government over the past several decades without any resounding success. Whether moving it to DoD will have a positive impact, or just moves a problem looking for a real solution, remains to be seen.

The order directs the Secretary of Defense to rename the Defense Security Service (DSS) as the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA). This existing organization with a new name will “serve as the primary Federal entity for conducting background investigations for the Federal Government.”

And, no later than June 24, 2019, “the DCSA shall serve as the primary entity for conducting effective, efficient, and secure background investigations for the Federal Government for determining whether covered individuals are or continue to be eligible for access to classified information or eligible to hold a sensitive position.”

The purpose is that the government needs to facilitate “needed reforms in this critical area (so) the primary responsibility for conducting background investigations Government-wide (will) be transferred from the Office of Personnel Management to the Department of Defense.”

Most of the jobs that are investigated are reportedly with DoD. The agency has a motive for having it work well.

Moving Other Parts of OPM

OPM will have its hands full with trying to hire people with the skills to perform the work required by government and ensuring personal data maintained by OPM is secure and not available to hackers working for foreign governments. Currently, the administration wants to transfer OPM’s other functions to the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Whether the remaining transfers will occur remains to be seen.

Congress is not enthusiastic. Whether sufficient funding and a workforce with the necessary skills will be available to successfully implement the significant responsibilities that will still be in OPM (or elsewhere) also remains to be seen but looks doubtful.

As federal HR expert Jeff Neal recently observed: “OPM’s problem is not its people, nor is it the Civil Service Reform Act that created the agency, or the changing nature of the federal workforce. The real problem is that OPM was basically gutted by the National Performance Review (“reinventing government”) between Fiscal 1993 and fiscal 1996.”

In short, it is not clear how moving these different parts of OPM to GSA, DoD or OMB will resolve the problems OPM has encountered and that will still exist even if the reorganizations occur.

Acting OPM director Margaret Weichert recently noted: “In the 21st century, mobility, agility, the need to re-skill people to do the jobs of today, these are all things that are not able to be done by OPM because it’s dealing with this legacy infrastructure, a legacy funding model. That’s the primary reason strategically this is the marquee reorganization that is needed.”

If the reorganization actually changes the “legacy infrastructure” and “a legacy funding model”, the federal human resources infrastructure that is now staggering, decaying and shredding into disparate components may improve. Moving the pieces around without a realistic economic purpose instead of political rhetoric will not solve the current problems.

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