The Trump administration’s plan to abolish the federal government’s human resources agency, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is a reckless, ill-conceived, and potentially dangerous idea.
It is reckless because there has been no “business case” or other type of analysis of its costs, rationale, or risks. It is ill-conceived because there has been no consideration of how the plan would affect the substantive work currently performed by OPM. And it is potentially dangerous because one of OPM’s primary responsibilities is upholding the apolitical civil service, an unappreciated pillar of our democracy that the administration has repeatedly shown an interest in undermining.
Indeed, the Trump administration has routinely questioned the political loyalties of federal employees and complained when their work challenges its own opinions and understanding on issues such as science, law, and economics.
On a more mundane level, however, is the fact that no successful enterprise, either in the public or private sector, operates without an office focused on human resources. But success is not what this administration is looking for when it comes to the agencies of the federal government.
The success of the agencies of the government’s executive branch should be a priority of everyone. These are the institutions that are set up to care for our veterans, protect our air, water, borders, food supply, health and national security and so much more. Again, the purpose of OPM is to protect us all from the disaster that would occur if partisan political considerations factored into the hiring of the career civil servants who carry out this important work. A robust “merit-based” civil service system is a cornerstone of all modern democracies, including America’s. It ensures that technical expertise is brought to bear on performing government’s missions, without the threat of partisan agendas controlling the way day-to-day operations are carried out.
The administration’s purported rationale for dismantling OPM is unclear, but allegedly has something to do with the agency’s information technology (IT) systems. If IT improvements were actually the problem, acquiring better IT would be the solution. But, IT quality is definitely not the “problem” the Trump administration is addressing with this proposal, as its details reveal.
Their plan is to send OPM’s policy function to the Executive Office of the President, its background check function to DoD, and everything else to the General Services Administration (GSA). Transferring the human resources policy function to the White House is an obvious move to politicize federal employment, but so is the transfer of OPM’s other human resource functions to GSA, even if it is less obvious.
GSA is an agency that supplies other federal agencies with contracts for goods and services and leases office space and fleets of vehicles. Contracting and leasing, that’s what GSA does. And what is the Trump administration’s agenda with regard to the federal workforce? Temporary contracts and leases, sometimes known as “gig” employment. In the same way that GSA provides agencies with fleets of leased vehicles, if the administration gets its way, GSA would provide fleets of leased employees, hired for discreet terms, and available to be used, abused, discarded and replaced.
Americans must be able to rely on the fact that the federal workforce is processing their Social Security claims and measuring pollution in the air without regard to politics or political considerations. We simply cannot have a federal workforce hired or fired on the basis of politics. But in addition to the proposed dismantlement of OPM, this administration has tried to eliminate, degrade, restrict or otherwise undermine federal employees’ due process rights and collective bargaining rights. These rights will only become more vulnerable to abuse or elimination if the administration gets its way with regard to the abolishment of OPM.
The merger plan was developed without input or involvement from either Congress or affected employees. The idea first appeared in the President’s Management Agenda and was fleshed out and buried in GSA’s obscure Congressional Budget Justification. Now the Trump administration has brazenly announced its intention to implement parts of the merger administratively, completely bypassing Congress in the process.
The importance of maintaining a nonpartisan, apolitical civil service in an increasingly partisan environment cannot be overstated. We cannot allow this administration to abolish OPM, the agency whose primary mission is to uphold this important foundation of our democracy.
David Cox Sr. is national president of the American Federation of Government Employees.