While the Trump administration is moving forward with initial steps in reshuffling responsibilities for personnel management, it is also suggesting that it may not implement some of the most significant proposals. The Office of Personnel Management plans to shift its Human Resources Solutions division to the General Services Administration, as part of the first phase of reforms. Functions that would be relocated include OPM’s fee-for-service offerings such as HR consulting, training, occupational assessment tests and USAJobs.
Jeff Pon and Emily Murphy, directors of OPM and GSA respectively, are confident most of the shift can occur without legislation. The agencies plan to start implementing changes they have the authority to make over the next 3-4 months.
Pon said he doesn’t expect some of the more significant changes to begin until 2021, which includes relocating the administration of retirement processing and federal employee benefits. This includes the healthcare marketplace that serves more than 8 million worker, retirees, and their families.
Maybe one of the most controversial of the proposals is to move what remains of OPM to the White House, under the Executive Office of the President.
One senator said she was concerned that turning OPM into a policy shop at EOP would lead to “HR policy for career staff [being] based on politics and not on merit.” Pon said his role as OPM director would remain and the oath he swore to “be a defender of merit systems” would continue to guide him.
However, Pon said this change may not happen at all. “We’re seeing whether or not we need legislation for that to happen because of the independence that OPM has as the civil service leader and also the civil service and merit system principles enforcement wing of the government,” he said. “If we can move that to the executive office of the president, we will, but believe there needs to be more analysis as to whether that can happen without legislation, and if we do have legislation, does that make sense. And we’ll decide on that after we’ve had conversations with key stakeholders, interagency coordination, and so on.”
That OPM proposal has been met with widespread criticism, largely focused on the move to EOP, fearing it would undermine the non-partisan civil service.
Subcommittee Chairman Sen. James Lankford, R-Ok., said the other ideas could hold merit given they were proposed with the proper intentions. “If these 3 OPM services can be transferred into GSA, it must be done to improve services to our federal workforce and to provide efficiencies from what many would equate as a merger,” he said.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, said she wasn’t afraid of big ideas and Congress should be open. She did, however, voice concern that the OPM proposals would address the issues the agency faces. “One of the questions in a reorganization plan is what is the problem you’re seeking to solve, and how will this reorganization actually solve that problem,” she said. “Somehow just rearranging the chairs, or who sits where, in my opinion, doesn’t solve some of the problems that I see that need to be solved within OPM.”
“I want to be clear on one point,” Pon said. “This proposal is not a secret plan to fire civil servants. Rather, it’s an opportunity to elevate the federal workforce management function and maximize3 the operational efficiency of human capital services.”
Murphy said GSA was better equipped to handle the transactional services such as benefits, administrative and retirement processing because GSA is an “administrative office” and not a policy agency.
“Centralizing the transaction processing and IT for administrative functions of GSA, where it is our mission to provide excellent mission-support services, will allow for OPM to focus on their core strategic mission,” Murphy said.
Both agencies may run into trouble as they try to implement its plan unilaterally, as lawmakers are on the verge of passing a spending bill that would require congressional oversight for any reorganization actions taken by the agencies.