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Trump HR plan may politicize federal workforce

The Trump administration wants to merge the Office of Personnel Management with the General Services Administration. Critics warn doing so would have serious consequences.

The federal government's HR operation may be one of the world's largest, with responsibility for a federal workforce of 2.1 million. The Office of Personnel Management gives federal agencies policy expertise and HR technology advice. It is now embroiled in a debate about its future.

President Trump's administration wants to merge OPM with the General Services Administration (GSA). The GSA manages federal real estate, but is also a center for technology expertise and creates vehicles for agencies to acquire technology and hire private sector professional services, including HR.

By merging OPM with GSA, the Trump administration said it will combine expertise, save about $23 million annually in administrative efficiencies and accelerate the modernizing of HR tech. But the proposal is generating a pushback from critics, who caution the move could fracture policy development and politicize employment decisions.

Splitting policy development between a handful of people in OMB and a group at GSA may make policies more likely to be driven by political concerns.
Jeffrey NealFormer chief human capital officer, Department of Homeland Security

The merger calls for giving federal workforce policy control to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The White House argued this change will help establish an enterprise-wide HR strategy for the federal government. The concern is this change will open the federal hiring to patronage where jobs could be awarded as election spoils.

"Splitting policy development between a handful of people in OMB and a group at GSA may make policies more likely to be driven by political concerns," said Jeffrey Neal, former chief human capital officer for the Department of Homeland Security. He is a senior vice president at consulting and technology services provider ICF International Inc., in Fairfax, Va.

Moreover, Neal believes the plan could impede HR operations. "The merger would not give departments and agencies any authorities they do not already have and might impede the ability of the government to develop policies that could make the government more competitive in the labor market," he said.

Federal workforce needs predictive analytics

Linda Springer, a former director of OPM, told lawmakers at a recent hearing about the proposal. She said OPM does need to improve some of its capabilities, such as "predictive analytics to anticipate the personnel management demands of the future and move to a proactive, rather than a reactive, posture."

But Springer warned against the White House plan. It risks "tearing apart" an independent agency and putting it at risk of bad political practices, she said. 

"Is it reasonable for a White House office to issue policy guidance and review requests to appoint political appointees to competitive positions?" Springer said to lawmakers. "The proposal places federal personnel policy setting right back in a place where the spoils and patronage system had taken hold."

House Democrats oppose the merger and recently voted to block the formation of OPM-GSA. A merger prohibition was included in the National Defense Authorization Act, a budget bill. The Senate has not acted on it.

OPM offers federal agencies acquisition assistance, which includes HR-related contract services. GSA awards contract vehicles for many of these services, "so an OPM-GSA merger would have little impact" on the contractors, said Ray Bjorklund, president of BirchGrove Consulting LLC, a federal contracting advisory firm.

OPM "must demonstrate certain aspects of its value to customer agencies," Bjorklund said, otherwise agencies can do their own contracting. "I don't think there will be much disruption in how the agencies contract for HR services," he said, should the merger take place.

The "core value" of OPM is its policy expertise, and if the merger isn't planned well, "some of the expertise now concentrated in OPM will get diluted," Bjorklund said.

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